Introduction by Croakey: Should the Australian Government lead the way in funding or supporting the development of a healthy, safe and productive digital space as essential public infrastructure, like a Snowy Scheme, to offer an alternative to toxic Big Tech platforms like Twitter/X and Meta’s Facebook?
That was one of the calls to action aired at Croakey’s #DigitalNationBuilding webinar on Monday, which later released draft principles from an open network of people advocating for safer digital infrastructure and news and information systems, as Marie McInerney reports in the #LongRead below.
The discussion comes in the final days of public consultation on Federal Government legislation to empower the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to hold digital platforms to account for harmful misinformation and disinformation online.
Marie McInerney writes:
In this era of climate disruption and other public health threats, safe digital platforms should be regarded as essential infrastructure that is accessible and available to all, according to draft principles developed at a #DigitalNationBuilding webinar hosted this week by Croakey.
The open event, which brought together participants from across Australia and from diverse public health backgrounds, was held to brainstorm a future digital space that centres the public interest rather than commercial imperatives. The draft principles will be published at Croakey in coming days.
Led by Croakey Health Media chair, UTS Professor Megan Williams, the event canvassed whether governments, including the Australian Government, should step up to fund and/or lead the development of a not-for-profit public space that could provide the information, news and connections formerly provided by Twitter.
Williams, who belongs to the Wiradjuri peoples of central New South Wales, said Western democracies have been long anchored by the idea of ‘a public space’, “where people gather and share ideas, to mediate difference and to make change”.
That resonated for her with notions of unity that Indigenous nation building seeks to create, and Indigenous peoples’ highly developed techniques for intergenerational knowledge transfer and understandings of health that are essential for planetary health, she said.
The webinar asked:
- What does our ideal news and information system look like?
- What are the levers for transforming our current systems?
- Where next: Who/How/When etc.
Scoping the need for a new model, Croakey editor-in-chief Dr Melissa Sweet said the implosion of Twitter under Elon Musk had shown the vulnerability of vital communications infrastructure.
“So many people have relied on Twitter and, almost overnight, it’s become unstable, erratic, dangerous,” she said, adding that a rush to Meta’s alternative Threads was not a healthy option.
In addition to Meta’s extractive marketing and data surveillance practices, Amnesty International found that Meta’s “dangerous algorithms and reckless pursuit of profit substantially contributed to the atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya people in 2017”.
“So none of these corporate platforms really offer a healthy, safe ecosystem going forward,” Sweet said, questioning the approach of trying to teach people to negotiate an unsafe environment, where the corporate imperative and complex algorithms actively encourage, and rely on, the dissemination of content that is inflammatory or hateful.
“That’s like asking people to wear a HAZMAT suit in an unsafe toxic environment, rather than saying ‘well, actually, let’s make this a healthy safe environment’,” she said.
Loved and lost
It was clear at the event, which acted as a mini memorial for Twitter, how much participants had valued the platform, particularly in its early days when it was driven by user-generated ideas, including hashtags that brought discussions together.
“None of us knew we needed Twitter until it happened, and then suddenly it became something that was very important and worked really well,” said Professor Ginny Barbour, editor in chief of The Medical Journal of Australia and director of Open Access Australasia.
Others also shared reflections:
Twitter did work well….back in the day when it was really driven by user-generated ideas.
Twitter was great for breaking down boundaries…we could hear from community members, alongside organisations etc.
It’s the power of the wider community and silo-busting that is transformative.
It was users who helped make Twitter so successful. Users created hashtags and so many of the Twitter features. And then corporate imperatives took over.
However, the flaws were increasingly apparent.
As Croakey and others have widely reported, there are huge public health ramifications from Big Tech operations, including how the digital giants track, store and on sell data, the turbo-charging of misinformation and disinformation, dissemination of hate speech and ‘trolling’ of users.
The Washington Post reported this week that Twitter/X has been slowing the speed with which users could access links to the New York Times, Facebook and other news organisations and online competitors.
Meanwhile, new study involving a sample of 380,000 environmentally oriented Twitter users found that nearly 50 percent became inactive on Twitter after it was sold in October 2022, a rate much higher than a control sample.
“Given Twitter’s importance for public communication, our finding has troubling implications for digital environmental information sharing and public mobilisation,” the authors reported.
Public health researchers and officials have also been targeted, as digital health consultant and researcher Dr Becky White told the webinar.
Concerted campaigns of intimidation and harassment, including doxing (the purposeful release of personal information on the internet), were raising serious issues about “the safety of being a public figure on some of these platforms [where] it has and is spilling into real life harm as well”, she said.
The dramatic decline of Twitter/X also has implications for emergency responses. For example, the ABC, strongly distancing itself from the platform, has also taken down its Emergency Twitter account, which the webinar heard has been vital in any number of crises, from road accidents to climate disasters.
Sustainable food systems advocate Lisa Brassington said Twitter and other fast social media platforms had been crucial in the 2019-20 bushfires and during COVID, assisting communities with low data access to get real-time information versus government apps like Emergency Victoria that updated less frequently.
At the same time, Big Tech companies have demonstrated their unreliability during emergencies, most notably in Australia when Facebook shut down access to emergency services, government health departments and agencies, and multiple other health organisations in 2021, the midst of the pandemic, in its bid to resist having to pay news media outlets for publishing their content.
Canada is seeing similar pressure now.
White said increased transparency and access to public data from social media platforms for research was also important in understanding how misinformation and disinformation manifest and steps that can be taken to mitigate them.
Brassington also warned of longer-term risks of monetisation of social media services that are currently free. If Facebook and Instagram start charging users, that would be unaffordable for many local community groups and deeply affect organic community conversations, she said.
Imagining a new model
Discussing a new digital model, Luke van der Beeke, managing director of the Behaviour Change Collaborative, suggested it was useful to look back on the early days of Twitter to identify the attributes that attracted users.
For him it was about accessing information, making social connections and learning. “And there was much more camaraderie, much more openness and willingness for people on both sides of politics to actually engage a bit more sensibly,” he said.
An important feature for him of a a post-Twitter platform would be “to be able to interact with the people who don’t think like me”.
“If we actually want to see social change, then we do need to engage,” he said, though emphasising the need for safety to be a critical factor in any future platform.
Trust also plays an important role. Barbour said Open Access Australasia has recently seen stronger readership of its e-newsletter, which may be related to failing confidence in Twitter.
“I think that people are now turning more to things that they trust,” she said, suggesting “that’s one really key part of what we have to build into a system”.
But that may make for a much narrower space than people want, she said, noting that both Mastodon and Threads are more about connections with “people we know” versus Twitter’s capacity to bring people together across multiple personal and professional fields and globally.
Reflecting after the event, Croakey editor Alison Barrett also pointed out important functionality priorities, such as: use of hashtags (or other mechanism to curate themes and issues), capability to include website links, photos and videos, easy switching between different accounts, easy sign in, and word and character limits.
Barrett said equitable access to news and information is also important, for people who may not have access to a smart phone or have limited digital connectivity or literacy, but also where the shift from print to digital news is not an individual choice, as when local print media closes down.
Essential public infrastructure
So, the webinar asked, do we leave the next Twitter to the corporates? Is there a role – and a responsibility – for public funding and development of digital infrastructure? Is that too utopian? (Or at risk of featuring in Utopia, as one participant worried!). Are there precedents? What could make it happen? What role can public health sector play in pushing such an agenda?
Sweet proposed a leadership role for government, in the spirit of past nation building investments like the Snowy hydro scheme, in creating a safe, healthy public digital infrastructure.
She asked whether the zeitgeist might be shifting in favour of investment in the public service and public infrastructure, as indicated by growing concern around the role of the Big Four consultancies and the move away from privatisation that New South Wales Premier Chris Minns said was at the heart of Labor’s recent state election victory.
“Why is it any less important as infrastructure than roads, rail etc?” asked Sweet, adding she was not suggesting it be government-run, but that it would likely need government initiative and funding to kick it off, to be driven by a “not for profit ethos, not there to maximise profit but to provide a useful public service”.
Health communications and health promotion consultant Kristy Schirmer, who works part-time with Cancer Council SA’s Prevention team, said she had opened casual conversations with friends and colleagues about the idea of a government-sponsored public digital space.
“The initial reaction is definitely a look of ‘What are you talking about? This is crazy’,” she said.
But then, when she would point out that government provides other fundamental infrastructure, like the internet, roads and health and education sectors, and that the internet and social media are critical now for a whole range of essential services and connections, views begin to shift, she said.
And the conversation becomes more about why would we not consider creating or having either a government supported or community not-for-profit-led online space that can provide the connections, be safe, and ensure “that profit and ego aren’t driving it and the interest is public good”.
“It’s been interesting to see people go from ‘What are you talking about?’ to ‘That’s a really interesting idea’,” she said.
Push for regulation
Professor Kathryn Backholer, co-director of Deakin University’s Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition and a leading academic on the commercial determinants of health, told the webinar she can also see the benefit and potential of public funded digital infrastructure.
She said we are starting to see ‘public good’ platforms, such as Ecosia, which plants a tree for every use of its search engine, though she noted that “advertising still underpins their economic model”, and she is not sure what ethics they have in place on that.
But, she said, the sceptic in her notes that Big Tech is worth $5-6 trillion, and she fears that no start-up, government or otherwise, “where profit is not a primary motive, will have the capital to be able to compete with these huge global players to produce platforms that can attract mass participation”.
She believes efforts to create a new space need to come alongside regulation to rein in the power of these big companies, where the only levers for transformation are through the use of legal measures, including better competition and advertising laws.
“We are up against industry giants who wield a huge amount of power and have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to taking any significant steps to improve our digital information ecosystem,” she said, urging civil society to “really push” for government regulation of Big Tech.
And that raises the question of community empowerment, Sweet said, recalling comments by Peter Lewis, inaugural director of the Centre for Responsible Technology at the Australia Institute, when Facebook shut down so many groups in 2021 to defend its commercial interests.
“He was waiting for the community to rise up in protest…and it never happened,” she said, suggesting the need for a massive education and reframing exercise to address how people accept whatever social media platforms require or deliver.
A big conversation
Here are some more chat conversations from the event:
Why we need a new space
Digital news and comms infrastructure is too important to leave to corporates.
We deserve a digital news and comms infrastructure that prioritises the needs of communities.
Need a diverse ecosystem.
Digital news and comms infrastructure is only going to become more important in era of escalating climate disruption and other public health threats.
Clarity on: our perceived needs of a platform, vision, who to engage with, how to pay for this – start up and ongoing.
A balance between digital equity and also safety.
I am increasingly wondering about the push to ‘digital inclusion’ too when it is really exposing people to unsafe spaces, whether digital scams, or misinformation and disinformation etc.
Platforms are becoming more disparate and there is a lack of transparency of data – no coincidence that most social media research was based on Twitter, as that was the most access. If we want to be able to identify and respond to misinformation, data transparency is important.
I think one of the major barriers to getting more government engagement on this issue is the lack of understanding and technical expertise within the bureaucracy about digital media.
I think there is an important place for these conversations within for our public health curriculum content – and perhaps with the third edition of the CAPHIA competencies on their way is there an opportunity?
Sketching out a new model
There needs to be 2 things in place for a model like this:
- value for the users (e.g. connection, information, entertainment, community)
- a model to bring in revenue (advertising, user pays…?)
…I highly recommend thinking about this through the perspective of the Business Model Canvas – it maps out all the pieces that need to be in place for any enterprise to be successful.
But it’s not just about being a source. It’s about an interactive, multi-way news and info system.
I think it’s about making communities. Social media algorithms work largely on communities so it’s about building active online communities. The challenge is being a voice in all of these different online communities. So comes back to the purpose of the media channel.
Could it be like the ABC? E.g. where there are commercial alternatives but there is a government-funded option with a public interest mission as well?
It would be good to connect the early digital innovators with the public health crowd…in the early days the internet was all about innovation for the public good. It was only when corporate agendas took over.
It is also important from a business development perspective. Many businesses are disadvantaged by the market power of Big Tech and their dominance of digital infrastructure. Many businesses might see the value in a digital infrastructure that better supports communities and innovation.
Philanthropists could support a process of innovation and development.
Would be great to see more civil society engaged, eg ACOSS, housing sector, justice groups, community organisations.
Perhaps what is needed is a NFP “civil society twitter”?
I think public interest journalism, health and the arts are the most important sectors with need for social media.
I think it would be worth reaching out to some of the non-health social and environmental groups and see if this is on their radar.
Should government lead the way?
Perhaps we should look back at the history of ABC and SBS…not that it’s the same thing but what enabled them to get going.
I think even the most liberal govt would want to be hands off themselves (though may fund a grant to investigate?..).
I like the idea of seed funding by government.
Governments have a role in better regulating big tech so that innovation can flourish.
Relevant portfolios? Industry; health; media and communications; Treasury; PMC. Others? Education also an important portfolio. Research. It would be a great action research process!!
Call to action
Croakey readers have until 20 August to make a submission on legislation planned to tackle misinformation and disinformation. The importance of this proposed legislation for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been underscored by a senior Aboriginal academic, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks.
Backholer told Croakey that she regards the Bill as an important safeguard for our digital information ecosystemsm for addressing the dangerous misinformation and disinformation that we saw through COVID “where foreign disinformation campaigns pushed anti-vaccination messages through social media platforms, leading to a drop in mean vaccination coverage”.
“And with the rise of generative AI, there is potential that the spread of mis- and disinformation through the internet will only get worse,” she said, adding that the proposed legislation “strikes the right balance between freedom of expression and preventing the spread of harmful content online”.
“Online platforms already have measures in place to manage mis- and disinformation through industry codes – the Bill will just make sure that this process is systematic, regular and transparent”.
She questioned why Opposition coalition spokesman David Coleman was running such a big campaign against the legislation, saying the Coalition supported this type of regulation when it was in government and had committed to hold social media giants to account before the last election.
“So it’s a curious backflip that seems to be more about politics than the Australian people,” she said.
Croakey has asked the Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King, for comment on the issues raised in this article.
Read Croakey’s archive on digital platforms