Can co-ops calm the social media storm?

Amid concern over fake news and polarised debate can co-op ways of working lead to a more civil future for Facebook and Twitter?

With the rise of mass print media around the turn of the 20th century came concerns over its influence on society and politics – concerns which have never really gone away.

Critics highlighted problems of ownership and monopoly; said there was a lack of accountability and a limited right of reply; pointed to examples of sensationalism, bias and outright falsehood; and raised questions of ownership. These flaws have seen the media accused of skewing public discourse and hampering democratic processes. 

With the rise of digital blowing a hole in the business model of print and broadcast news services, some hoped there would be room for new forms of media which would be more participative and accountable.

But just as new technologies like rail and telegraph were seized on by disruptive entrepreneurs to create the powerful newsprint empires of the 20th century, so has digital fostered the rise of the social media giants of the 21st. And with a global reach and a compulsive product that enters every aspect of the user’s life, these platforms have a potential power beyond the dreams of a humble newspaper magnate. 

Disruptive, poorly regulated and fast-growing, social media has left policymakers blindsided with concerns that it is fostering extremism, fake news and conspiracy theories; and that by creating online echo chambers it is dividing and polarising people into different groups.

Companies including YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and Facebook have all been criticised for being slow to act against hate speech and extremist views. Even when those sites do clamp down on harmful content it is not a perfect solution; a large number of “alt right” posters who had been censored for hate speech have simply moved to Parler – a social media site launched in 2018.

Most worrying of all are concerns that social media is facilitating data misuse and voter manipulation. Two documentary feature films,  The Great Hack (2019) and The Social Dilemma (2020), have looked at the effects of social media and its role in a wave of populist election results – with evidence of voter manipulation by organisations like Cambridge Analytica the 2016 Brexit referendum and the elections of Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil.

This year has seen the spread of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory – which includes attacks on 5G technology, vaccination and the scientific consensus around Covid-19. 

Last month a survey revealed that 56% of young adult Americans had seen Nazi symbols on social media, and 49% had encountered Holocaust denial online. Almost a quarter of those surveyed (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or weren’t sure.

Let’s buy Twitter

In response there have been calls to regulate social media, with US Congress holding hearings on its impact. Trustbusters have suggested breaking up giants such as Facebook. 

But there’s another side to social media. It has genuinely democratic potential giving everyone access to receive and broadcast information; it offers scope for people to organise and is itself a tool for activism. Clearly it has co-operative potential: so could the co-op model come to the rescue and curb the worst excesses of the new tech giants?

In 2017 the #BuyTwitter campaign called for a new ownership model to ‘democratise’ the platform. “If Silicon Valley can disrupt whole industries, why not innovate with company ownership, too?” the campaign website asked. “With chaotic stock prices and politics threatening Twitter, we want to save ‘the people’s news network’ as a vital public utility. 

“That’s why we propose Twitter study ways to build user loyalty and increase shareholder value, through broad-based ownership and accountability similar to a co-op.”

The proposal went to a vote at Twitter’s annual meeting on 22 May 2017. The campaign leaders had hoped for at least 3% of shareholders voting in favour, giving them enough sign of support to resubmit a stronger proposal in the future, and received 4.9% of the vote. 

Co-op researcher Danny Spitzberg from development organisation, who worked on #BuyTwitter, said the reaction to the campaign had been positive but there were some uncomfortable aspects; some of those indicating support included white supremacist and nationalist voices, along with controversial right wing political strategist Steve Bannon. So where does it go from here?

“The organisation around #BuyTwitter has shifted to a slow, academic, but still radical exploration of what a user-generated “code of conduct” might do to change overall governance for social media platforms,” he said.

This team is now working on, “a collective toolkit to block trolls and build new ownership”.

It says its goal is “to fix Twitter for everyone. To do it right, we’re centring survivors of hate speech and abuse in our organising. This toolkit for self-defence can be used right away. Over time, we’re building content moderation tools and techniques to model better behaviour, and to own and control social media for ourselves.”

Tools include tweet deleters – to help people protect their own information – and blocklists, where users can use their collective power to block trolls and bots.

Goodtwitter adds: “Until we as users have more power on Twitter, we need to build our own tools and interventions. However, with our own collective governance we could rewrite the terms of service ourselves. If we create policies and practices for a superior user experience, workers at Twitter would be silly not to adopt them. By proving the advantages of user ownership and control, we can turn Twitter, Inc. into public utility like a co-operative, that works well for everyone.”

Zebras ride to the rescue

Mr Spitzberg is involved in Exit to Community, a project to encourage new aspirations among start up businesses: instead of aiming for a public stock offering or buyout by a larger company, they could look to a community buyout.

The concept of Exit to Community was coined by Nathan Schneider, professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Also involved in the project is UK ethical entrepreneur community Zebras Unite – which advocates for the social sustainable ‘zebra’ model of start-up business as opposed to “‘unicorn’ companies bent on disruption rather than supporting businesses that repair, cultivate and connect”:

Exit to Community draws on ideas around community ownership that go back to the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration. That was a response to the depression and dustbowl of the 1930s; now, with the world again facing a transformative crisis in the shape of Covid-19, shared ownership is climbing back up the agenda, with communities turning to mutual aid and equity crowdfunding to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

For social media, such ownership models offer more benefits than helping users to self-regulate content; Prof Schneider says it would give users the power to oversee how their personal data can be monetised and prevent abuses.

One possible model for co-operative control of social media would be distributed governance –  a method of reaching consensus whereby all participants are treated equally without the presence of a central actor of hierarchy. Danny Spitzberg says: “Since December, I’ve been co-hosting webinars with folks speaking about various aspects of what’s required for startups to shift to community ownership and accountability. 

“This has been really rich — for example, my personal favourite was two founders of digital platforms describing how they’ve streamlined systems for user input that builds power to shape the product roadmap. Another rich example was folks from Taiwan, and the PublicLab and Extinction Rebellion, speaking about what kind of decentralised governance is necessary for meaningful community leadership. 

“Most recently we had someone from Associated Press describe experiments in accountability at-scale and over centuries.”

Around half of the organisations taking part in the webinars were from the media or journalism, adds Mr Spitzberg; the task now is to turn the “mountain of wisdom” that came from the seminars into a curriculum to guide organisations through the exit to community ownership.

While this promising work continues, ideas around community ownership are continuing to gain mainstream traction. Recently the Economist suggested it could offer a way forward for TikTok, a video app which has proven hugely popular with the youth market. TikTok is now up for sale after US president Donald Trump threatened to ban it if it remained under Chinese ownership. 

The Economist said this offered “a chance to redefine how big online platforms are run. TikTok could become the Linux of social media—and a model for others”. 

With no longstanding business model to constrain it, TikTok is free to experiment and challenge its established rivals, the Economist argues. It says that by becoming “a digital commonwealth, governed by a set of rules akin to a constitution with its own checks and balances”, it could change the way social media works. “User councils could have a say in writing guidelines for content moderation. Management would be obliged to follow due process. And people who felt their posts had been wrongfully taken down could appeal to an independent arbiter.”

With a much younger user base – true children of the 21st century – TikTok has another advantage when it comes to forging something new. 

If such ideas continue to gain traction, the future of social media could be more co-operative – and platforms may develop grassroots solutions to the problems of online harassment, misinformation and shouting matches.