Spark

Should social media be public media?

Public radio, public utilities...why not a public social network?
Could we make social media less like a political echo chamber and more like a public square?

Social media is great for sharing news. It's also great for sharing so-called "fake news" and for winding up in a "filter bubble" where you only see the news choices of like-minded people.

It's a situation that concerns Ethan Zuckerman deeply.

He's the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, and he's long had a research interest in promoting a diversity of points of view in online media.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, he made a radical proposal: public social media.

Just as we have a public broadcaster, for instance, why not have a public social network?

Ethan Zuckerman
Facebook in particular is an important and powerful news aggregator, simply in virtue of having so many users.

"That aggregator is making decisions based on a commercial logic," he argues. "It's trying to keep you on the Facebook site, it's trying to give you engagement with your friends, but it's not actually thinking too much about the social functions of an aggregator."

In contrast, Ethan thinks, a taxpayer-funded, public social network might aggregate news using different values.

"It might try to give more notice to underappreciated voices. It might try to increase geographic or political diversity. It would be trying to challenge you, not just make you happy."

I don't know that people will want to be challenged and confronted with different points of view all the time, but I suspect there's a lot of people who would want to try that.- Ethan Zukerman

In his own work, Ethan's been working on coming up with an alternative news aggregator model. He wants to build tools that can help people get out of their filter bubbles.

"I'm hoping to get entrepreneurs...media makers, NGOs, public media organizations interested in: why don't we try this out and let's see if anyone uses it?"

Ethan acknowledges that people may opt to stay in their echo chamber, which after all, can be a pretty comfortable place.

But he's hopeful.

"I don't know that people will want to be challenged and confronted with different points of view all the time," he argues. "But I suspect there's a lot of people who would want to try that, at least now and again. And I think giving people more control over this is a great way to go."

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