Social media has a pretty bad rap. It takes any opportunity to grab your data, it erodes your privacy, is bad for your health, and is generally agreed to be bad for kids.

These negative connotations have become amplified following the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal and as people more aware of their data rights following GDPR.

Because of this, a gap has opened up for social media with an ethical twist. Two prime examples of this are MeWe and Kialo.

These platforms are arguably on two completely opposite ends of the same spectrum; MeWe is all about privacy and as such remains as untouched as possible by its creators, where Kialo is ultra-moderated to ensure decency of conversation. But they both come out of a deep dissatisfaction with the way that social media currently works, and neither site carries ads or sells data.

MeWe, a Facebook-esque social media platform, has an obsession with privacy. It comes with a privacy Bill of Rights and the first line of its privacy policy states: ‘You own your content. We don’t. All your content belongs to you.’ Its makers also built it so that what the user sees is manipulated as little as possible, so that there is no motivation to collect data on users.

Kialo, in comparison, is more similar to Twitter or Reddit, and is designed to create sensible discussion. It says that it ‘cuts through the noise typically associated with social and online media, making it easy to engage in focused discussion.’ It has taken the fight to platforms like Twitter, with prominent adverts on the site enticing people away with a promise to shut out the ‘Internet Shouting Factory.’

Aiming for ethics in social media

Facebook-style social media is terrible for people

The emphasis Kialo puts on joining in constructive discussions may be better for your health, too. Duncan Stephenson, director of external affairs for the Royal Society for Public Health, in a recent House of Commons Select Committee, argued that “if you are using social media and are participating, that can be a positive, but smartphones are geared towards consuming information.

“There is some evidence that, if you are just consuming information, it impacts on levels of anxiety.”

What has led to the creation of these more ‘ethical’ social media platforms? Mark Weinstein, founder and CEO of MeWe, sees Facebook, and in particular Mark Zuckerberg, as having truly wronged billions of people. “Facebook has screwed up democracy,” Weinstein says.

“Facebook-style social media is terrible for people, for a few reasons. One is that its algorithm is designed to manipulate people’s minds and thoughts, because a lot of people get their news from Facebook. Facebook chooses what news people see, and media organisations can pay to get their posts boosted. Where there’s money, there’s trouble.”

Not only is the model a bad one, Weinstein argues, but its leadership is problematic too. “Zuckerberg has promised privacy time and time again. We have a fact page on our site which lists all the times Zuckerberg has lied about privacy and apologised about privacy. It’s all a big smokescreen.”

Data, data and more data

Weinstein’s arguments walk along a similar line to many privacy commentators, but with an added level of ferocity. He is insistent that Facebook is a data company rather than a social media company and believes that the most worrying result of all of this is a gradual erosion of democracy – something which is often discussed in the context of a ‘post-truth world.’

Ultimately, these developments are all part of a world where we see a constantly increasing flow, manipulation and monetisation of data. And that makes the old adage that if a service is free, you’re the product rather than the customer, ring truer than ever.

That has been the case for a long time. Adverts have always been targeted – there’s a reason you see different ads during Love Island to those you see during Top Gear reruns. But the degree to which it is happening is far greater, and many would argue far more insidious.

But businesses have to make money. How will these data-shunning platforms do so? MeWe has a freemium model, where users can pay for extra features like emoji packs and end-to-end encrypted chat. However, both are going for business users.

Making money without data

A certain amount of conflict is necessary to create any narrative interest

The MeWe Pro product is designed to compete with platforms like Slack, while Kialo also has a private Teams option designed for workflow and productivity. Products like these are becoming increasingly popular, and many tech vendors are segueing into attempts to ‘change the way we work.’

Weinstein, for instance, believes that 80% of the company’s revenue will come from the Pro division. He also believes that the decision to create a business-oriented product puts them ahead of companies like Snap, which currently doesn’t have access to enterprise pockets. Weinstein’s dream, therefore, could live or die on the success of the Pro product.

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Some of the topics that Kialo visitors can debate. Credit: Kialo

There is certainly an uphill battle for both of these platforms. The established social media kingpins are utterly dominant, and some argue that both MeWe and Kialo have slightly flawed USPs. Sara Nelson of Privacy International takes the view that there may be a more cynical edge to companies which make big privacy claims.

“We welcome public declarations by companies that they care about users’ privacy. However, it’s important to bear in mind that regardless of what companies with European operations say, they are legally required to abide by European data privacy laws anyway.

“As promotion of strong data privacy increasingly becomes a useful marketing technique for companies, we must ensure that the legal responsibilities of companies are being upheld for users globally.”

And Dr Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in California, believes that the clinical atmosphere of Kialo may hinder adoption. “A certain amount of conflict is necessary to create any narrative interest,” she says.

“Otherwise we have an artificial environment — sort of the Stepford Wives of social media where we give up free speech to protect our sensibilities instead of learning how to use the block button.”

The cost of privacy

Free speech has been a contentious topic online in the past few years, and in particular on social media. And there has been an unexpected consequence of MeWe’s laissez-faire attitude. It has attracted parts of society that didn’t feel comfortable on mainstream social media sites, or felt they were being targeted. There’s been a big influx of LGBT users and supporters of Bernie Sanders, Weinstein says.

One fringe section of society often associated with free speech and classical liberalism arguments is the far-right. Reddit, which was for a long time a bastion of free speech, attracts a large number of these groups, with the most recent to get mainstream media attention being the ‘Incel’ subreddit.

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MeWe’s open groups have attracted members. Credit: MeWe

There are a pretty significant number on MeWe, too. Weinstein pointedly will not talk about his political leaning, which is absolutely fair – but his ‘leave well alone’ approach has led to a number of groups developing which many parts of society would not approve of.

Of the first ten groups on MeWe under the ‘politics’ grouping, all but one are explicitly strongly right-wing. There is nothing wrong with being right-wing, of course, but the content of these groups is fairly unpleasant. The first group, titled Donald J Trump 2016, plays host to theories about child actors at the U.S. border, a post wishing death to liberals, and several which refer to hanging Hilary Clinton.

There is a strong culture of reporting and the team aims to act on these very quickly, says Weinstein, but for now, the cost of privacy may be rubbing shoulders with people you profoundly disagree with.

Twitter seems to thrive on that concept, so MeWe may well survive, though it might not be quite as soft and cuddly as it appears at first. Kialo, on the other hand, may suffer from the opposite problem. The lack of abuse is refreshing, but as Rutledge notes, it can be somewhat sterile. The aims of these social media platforms are admirable, but to succeed, they will have to deal with the hardest problem of all – people.