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The plans behind the “public service Twitter”

The public institutions are working hard on their digital strategies.

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The plans behind the “public service Twitter”

The public institutions are working hard on their digital strategies. Being present where people are increasingly consuming films, series and information – and there, above all, young people can reach what, in the case of classic media, means under 50 years of age. The ARD plans to divert around 250 million euros in program budget from linear to digital channels such as the media center by 2028. ZDF wants to reallocate 100 million euros to formats for younger target groups.

Last week ZDF director Himmler announced a project that made people sit up and take notice. The institution wants to build "a new communication platform in a protected area under public law" with international partners. Himmler then also said that there was "no idea what that could look like". Nevertheless, the announcement is remarkable - the industry service DWDL, which published the detailed interview, made it the news that ZDF wanted to develop an "alternative to Twitter and Co."

Phone call to Robert Amlung, the chief digital strategist at the Mainz institute. He says right at the beginning: "We are not planning a public service Twitter." After all, ZDF "does not want to exaggerate". And yet, despite all the distancing, it obviously cannot be ruled out that something like a public social network could emerge from the project, which is scheduled to run for two years. First of all, says Amlung, it's about finding out what needs people have, whether and how they want to talk to each other about topics and on which platforms.

In any case, it is clear that there is a need to exchange content, presumably also beyond the actual broadcasts. A program like "ZDFheute live" is therefore often streamed and also commented on - but much better via third-party platforms such as YouTube in this case than via ZDF's own offers on the Internet. The fundamentally problematic fact that public service television (and not only that) in the digital space is extremely dependent on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and tendentially TikTok in order to reach young target groups is concretely illustrated here.

Like his boss, Robert Amlung repeats that it is "completely open" which projects will be implemented later. But in the end it's probably not quite as open as it sounds. In any case, the sense and purpose should be an application or platform that the broadcasters can use to control their users' communication on the Internet themselves, instead of having to rely on other platforms - such as Twitter. The framework is also clear. Officially, it is a "research project for open dialogue on the Internet". So far, the public broadcasters CBC from Canada (which is where the initiative came from), SRG SSR from Switzerland and RTBF from Belgium have been involved. The ARD is not yet part of it. Other members can join.

The four institutions have now commissioned the US-based non-profit organization New Public to develop project ideas; Robert Amlung calls these "minimum viable products" in developer language. The nucleus for the development is a "Public Spaces Incubator", i.e. an incubator of ideas. In the end, the broadcasters should decide which product projects will actually be implemented. The parties have agreed not to disclose the costs of New Public's work. Transparency looks different, one should not even name an order of magnitude, says Amlung.

Two questions are now interesting in terms of content: What is the mission of the non-profit organization New Public, co-founded by media entrepreneur, book author ("The Filter Bubble") and activist Eli Pariser? And secondly: can ZDF actually pursue such a project, does the public service mandate allow it?

The hypothesis of ZDF and its comrades-in-arms is that they do communication in public space differently - and ultimately somehow better than the "big American platforms". Himmler's keywords are: "open and respectful", "non-commercial", "democracy", "fair dialogue", "independent and fact-based" - in contrast to "hate, violence, propaganda and defamation".

Which of course would have to be proven. Without absolving Twitter, Facebook and others of their responsibility, the dilemma of content moderation seems inevitable once users reach a certain size. Simply assuming that public service media could manage a social platform on the Internet more democratically than commercial providers is one thing. Implementation is the other.

In addition, freedom of opinion is also a democratic good, an open expression of opinion that is democratically legitimate, but does not always have to be "respectful". This means that ZDF and the other broadcasters are faced with exactly the same problem as all other providers - they would have to set up rules that vary from country to country and legal system, and which could then quickly lead to fundamental limits on freedom of expression.

In Germany there is a definition of what is punishable as "hate crime" - but there are repeated arguments about postings in networks that do not fulfill this definition of the offence, no matter how unpleasant they may be. A major difference to commercial offers is that the projects of the initiative are all “open source”, so the program code can be viewed and used by third parties.

The second question, about legitimacy, can actually only be answered once one or more specific projects have been defined. Tobias Gostomzyk, Professor of Media Law at the TU Dortmund, made a provisional legal classification on request: “A media library is already permitted. The distribution on social media too. And for Arte there is already more extensive competence for a cross-border platform.” At the moment, however, it is uncertain what is actually meant by a “media platform”.

Gostomzyk: “In fact, it will probably be about a digital strategy under public law that will include our own media libraries, third-party platforms such as Instagram, visibility in search and recommendation systems – for example via apps. Experimentation will certainly continue here.” It is not for nothing that the term “research project” is spoken of: “In the case of concrete implementation, the legal admissibility would then also have to be checked. On the other hand, I consider a large European media platform to be a difficult project to implement for various reasons.”

However, ZDF and the other broadcasters initially proceed according to the method that this bridge is only crossed as soon as it is reached – and not before. However, it is likely that the State Media Treaty would at least have to be modified if ZDF wanted to set up an internationally networked media platform.

If, in the end, a “public Twitter” project were to come about, then a study by the University of Ulm, which examined the acceptance of the data business model among young people, could be encouraging. Accordingly, young people would be willing to pay an average of EUR 2.52 per month for a public social medium, but only EUR 1.49 for commercial offers.

Or you see it like Thomas Jarzombek, media and tech expert of the CDU, who described such a project via Twitter as “absolute madness” and “crazy undertaking”. Jarzombek: "There must be a learning curve at some point, which the public sector cannot do." It remains to be seen which learning curve will move in which direction.

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