Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and the ensuing confusion have many looking for alternatives to the platform. One popular alternative has been Mastodon, a social network distributed across multiple servers without centralized ownership.
Mastodon’s profile has risen in recent weeks, with user signups skyrocketing. Mastodon is not a single company, but many connected servers working together. These individual servers need resources. These resources should be public.
As researchers in Internet communications, we propose that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) build a Mastodon server on the World Wide Web.
Launching a Mastodon server at the CBC could be the start of a news organization that sees itself not only as a content creator online, but as a better infrastructure for Canadians to create online.
Canadian social media
Mastodon is free and open source social media software available to anyone who wants to install it on a computer server. Once the Mastodon server is installed, it allows people to sign up for an account and perform familiar social media functions from there, such as sharing messages and following others.
What makes Mastodon powerful is that it is part of a larger network of servers called fedivers. This network allows one Mastodon server to connect to another – and to many other social media software systems. The result is a large, non-centralized network of smaller servers.
So the CBC could use the Mastodon platform and build its own server to provide access to Canadians who want social media without having to rely on predominantly American companies. Ideally, this could be provided as a service of global importance at a time when platform interests and national interests are increasingly aligned.
The future of public media
In the past, the CBC has been somewhat touchy about its social media strategy. When former CBC technology columnist Jesse Hirsh called out the broadcaster for its over-reliance on Facebook, his spot ended.
His comments raise an embarrassing point: why does a public broadcaster rely so much on privately owned platforms to reach its audience?
The reason is that running a social media service is a challenge for an organization mostly focused on content production. But this has not always been the case.
Historically, publicly funded media in Canada have many great examples of thinking outside of content production. The National Film Board’s Challenge for Change program sent filmmakers to document the lives of Fogo Island residents. CBCs ZeD was an experiment in open source television — a long-forgotten platform that allowed Canadians to share their videos online in 2002, three years before YouTube was launched.
These media projects were not so much about content creation as about creating opportunities for what we might call social media today. Using a Mastodon server would do the same.
Reinventing the future of media
Setting up a Mastodon server would also put the CBC on a path to reinvent what social media and online content could look like in the future. This won’t be easy, but we think it raises questions related to server setup that are directly applicable to future social media policy in Canada: sustainability, moderation, and trust.
First, we need to consider the sustainability of our Internet infrastructure. Mastodon already has a green collective that tries to use renewable energy. CBC relies on Akamai Technologies’ infrastructure. As Akamai commits to reducing the carbon footprint of its infrastructure, the same questions apply to CBC. Could making its own Mastodon server help the CBC reduce its footprint beyond just the media industry?
Second, each server must set its own community rules that decide how to moderate its content. The CBC has been quietly working on these issues for years around comments on its website. Starting a Mastodon server would apply the lessons learned so far.
Instead of top-down community values driven by corporate interests, there is an opportunity to align community standards with established Canadian legal frameworks and media policies. Establishing its own Mastodon service requires the CBC to interpret its own mandate and the Canadian Human Rights Code and the Multiculturalism Act before creating its own community standards for the service.
Third, the CBC should fight fake media such as deep fakes, foreign propaganda and conspiracy theories.
A strong moderate policy and clear guidelines would be essential. The CBC could bring its fact-checking and verification power to social media and combat misinformation. Perhaps the service could even come up with its own alternative to Twitter’s blue checkmarks, helping Canadians find sources of information they can trust.
Our proposal applies to Radio-Canada as much as it does to the CBC – any public media, really. We hope that taking alternative social media seriously would awaken the collective and global imagination about the future of public media.
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