Seeking social media alternatives

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 7th of July, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: seeking social media alternatives.

Senator Ted Cruz announced last month that he would start using a relatively unknown social media platform called Parler. It describes itself as an “unbiased” alternative to Facebook and Twitter. Senator Cruz announced his decision by way of the video sharing site YouTube.

CRUZ: Big Tech is out of control. Filled with hubris and flagrantly silencing those with whom they disagree. From conservative media organizations to the president of the United States, and millions of Americans in between. That’s why I’m proud to join Parler. This platform gets what free speech is all about. And I’m excited to be a part of it.

BROWN: Cruz’s announcement comes amid a growing dissatisfaction with the major social-media platforms. Republicans, conservatives, and Christians are especially unhappy with attempts to silence their views on issues like abortion, sexuality, and gender—not to mention political positions.

EICHER: But social media platforms also face criticism from their big advertisers for not clamping down enough on certain kinds of posts. Last week, companies ranging from Adidas to Coca Cola, from Ford to Verizon began an advertising boycott of Facebook. The goal was to force the company to curtail so-called hate speech on its platform.

BROWN: Joining us now to talk about the current social media landscape is Jason Thacker. He’s an associate research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. And he specializes in technology. Good morning, Jason!

JASON THACKER, GUEST: Good morning, Myrna. Thank you for having me. 

BROWN: We mentioned Parler already. What other alternative social media platforms are gaining popularity? 

THACKER: Yeah, and that’s the really important question is “gaining popularity.” Much like Parler, there are countless number of applications, but honestly, not many that are super viable. Because you see a lot of these startups like Vine and even Tik Tok that have grown immensely in popularity but most of the time they merge with other companies. They’re purchased up. Or some just really lose that sustainable user base and fall under the radar before being shut down. 

BROWN: You mentioned being able to be sustainable, do you think any of them have a chance of dethroning the major social media platforms that have become so ubiquitous?

THACKER: I mean, reality is we don’t have a lot of the major kind of early adopters of platforming and social media that we had with Myspace anymore. These things do have life cycles. But the reality is that your major platforms like a Twitter and Facebook are so large that they do kind of have outsized influence and sustainability and especially in this modern day, but I don’t think you’re going to have somebody knock off some of the major ones, even though there’s a lot of distrust and a lot of anger and misformed opinions, often, about the way these online communities function.

So it’s just kind of an ongoing revolving question about the viability of these platforms and are they really going to have a chance to gain that type of user base to make an impact. 

BROWN: From a free market perspective, having a variety of social media platforms is a good thing. But is there a downside, especially if they increase our tendency to talk past each other in areas where we disagree?

THACKER: Yeah, and as you said, there are many benefits to these things and I think that often we overlook that because there are real problems and questions we need to debate. But just like any technology, there’s always downsides to it. And so it’s so easy now to find an application that’s suited just for you that really becomes kind of an echo chamber. I mean, even Twitter itself has become an echo chamber because we often fail to realize that these platforms that the majority of Americans or even users across the world are not actually on these platforms. Comparatively, they have very small user bases. But it’s so easy to act like that is the world and kind of get into these echo chambers or sub communities within these larger communities. And so I think for us we need to realize there’s always benefits and there’s always dangers to these types of technologies, and as Christians we need to approach them with wisdom, with caution, with thoughtfulness, which is not often something that’s super prized in kind of this reactionary age where we have to respond immediately to something. Sometimes taking that step back and being thoughtful and wise in our approach will really help to set us apart from the rest of our communities and culture. 

BROWN: Cruz and others say efforts to control what people post on social media stems from the pervasive political and cultural perspective in Silicon Valley. But won’t there always be a need to set certain limits, given what we know about human nature?

THACKER: Yeah, I definitely do think there will be and we’re even seeing that with the rise of Parler. I mean, they already have certain content moderation policies and that’s really where the core of the debate gets to is that conservatives say that we shouldn’t have such stringent or intense kind of content moderation policies. More left-leaning or more liberal folks when they approach these things said we should have stricter things about hate speech and about bullying or harassment and about misinformation and about mistruths. And so, really, the debate isn’t so much about is it free or not free as much as how free is it?

But how do we have content moderation policies that are healthy, that are appropriate, and that do foster deeper dialogue and connections with other folks. 

BROWN: Jason Thacker is with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s also recently released a book about artificial intelligence. It’s titled, The Age of AI. Thanks for joining us today, Jason!

THACKER: Thank you for having me.


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