Parler’s ex-CEO John Matze wants to fix social media with new Hedgehog app

The ex-CEO of conservative social media site Parler has launched a new app called Hedgehog that looks to promote “rational discussions,” even as it looks to eliminate cyberbullying and online “mobs” that have plagued other sites — including and especially Parler.

John Matze said he has developed the new app, which has been likened to a hybrid of Flipboard, Reddit and X, after learning hard lessons from his time running Parler — famously shut down in January 2021 over accusations that it helped enable the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters.

The tech entrepreneur co-founded Parler in 2018 partly in response to questionable clampdowns on “misinformation” by social media apps including Facebook and Twitter that frequently targeted conservatives. Parler’s lax regulation, however, left it vulnerable to promoting conspiracy theories during the 2020 presidential election.

John Matze has launched Hedgehog, a platform that promotes
civil debate and conversation. Jake Jung for Hedgehog

Hedgehog, on the other hand, is looking to walk a line to become a destination for news junkies whether they lean to the left or the right — and who are interested in sorting through the facts.

“Hedgehog is going to be successful the more diverse the people are on the platform,” Matze told The Post. “Getting a broad spectrum of people on the platform is our target.”

“The fringe left and the fringe right, that’s not our target demographic,” he added. “They probably don’t want to have those good-faith discussions, the debate and the discourse that we are trying to create on the platform.”

Launched in mid-February, the new app aims to accomplish this partly through “guardrails,” which include active community moderation on the platform. But he’s also looking to attract healthy dialogue across the political spectrum by serving up opposing viewpoints in unusual ways.

That means pulling news from a large swath of “trusted sources” that include both Fox News and CNN. Other outlets include ESPN, CBS News, The New Yorker, Sky News, Axios, Business Insider, NASA, The Daily Dot, NPR, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Post, NBC and Politico.

Parler was booted from Amazon servers shortly after Jan. 6 due to claims the app failed to police threats posted by users.

Matze was ousted from the company in February 2021 after he reportedly clashed with co-founder Rebekah Mercer over how to deal with the spread of violent messages on the platform in the wake of the attack.

Matze sued Parler that March over his firing and claims that the platform’s leadership stole his 40% stake in the company.

“I founded and ran Parler with the best of intentions, and I’m ashamed it was hijacked by bad actors to promote toxicity and drive a malicious political agenda,” Matze said. “I’m now pursuing a lawsuit against those bad actors, and I fully expect to win.”

Hedgehog editors select stories in order to promote conversations around thought-provoking and timely topics. Hedgehog

Matze laid out some of the tools he’s implemented in Hedgehog to promote a more positive environment. The company employs a three-part system, in which all content first runs through a “carefully trained and built” artificial intelligence system designed to “filter the most obviously inappropriate and unsafe content.”

Beyond that, human moderators review content that has been flagged for their attention by AI to ensure that it complies with Hedgehog’s rules.

“It’s clear to me that social media hasn’t done enough,” the exec said, referring to the proliferation of misinformation during the 2020 presidential election and around the Jan. 6 riots.

“If you try to go on X and have a discourse, it is not possible,” he said. “You’re going to get shouted down or not even seen because so much of what is controlled is through a complex set of algorithms.”

Members of Hedgehog are also free to report content they feel is inappropriate, which triggers a community poll to decide whether the content should be removed or the person who created the content should be removed from the chat, the company said.

“It’s a community-first system, basically, with a well-built structure supporting them and ensuring their safety,” a rep from Hedgehog concluded.

Users can interact on the platform by sending messages, liking posts or reacting to stories via emojis and gifs. Hedgehog

Hedgehog doesn’t use algorithms to determine what users see on their feeds. Instead, the just see content from topics that interest them.

Users can opt for an ad-supported version of the site, which includes access to curated news stories and community posts, as well as the ability to create topics of conversation and comment on them.

For $4.99 a month, subscribers can become “contributors,” which means they can manage conversations, access data on the engagement of their posts, become leading voices on the platform and have an ad-free experience, among other things.

Although the company did not reveal how many users are currently on the platform, it said it “grew accounts by the mid-double digits in April.”

Matze said his goal is to garner 20 million users and 1 million contributors in the next five years.

While that seems like a steep climb, the platform has the muscle behind it to invest in that growth.

Fox Corp., a sister company to The Post owner News Corp., is a Hedgehog investor. The media giant led Hedgehog’s series A funding with $4 million, plus another $1 million if the platform hits certain performance goals.

Articles are posted from Hedgehog’s “trusted sources” list which span the gamut from Reuters and Esquire to NASA and Fox News. Hedgehog

Matze said Hedgehog seeks to expose users to different kinds of news outlets partly by obscuring the source of a news headline until a user clicks on it.

For example, Hedgehog recently posted a news story with the headline: “Liar, liar car on fire? Feds looking at possible Tesla wire fraud charges over self-driving claims. (Did Elon overpromise?).”

Clicking on the headline opened a Reuters story with the relatively dry headline: “In Tesla autopilot probe, US prosecutors focus on securities, wire fraud.”

Matze said he’s hoping to draw a diverse, more centrist audience. Jake Jung for Hedgehog

The decision to not broadcast the source of the story is deliberate, Matze said, adding that he hopes that readers will not only be exposed to different sources, but also that the platform will develop a sense of “trust” with the audience.

So far, the company said it is seeing strong interest in stories on the impact of artificial intelligence, inflation concerns, soaring housing and food prices, and international affairs, especially what’s happening in Russia and Haiti.

The company plans to lean more into cultural interests by creating spaces on the platform designated for super fans to discuss topics like gaming and food later this month.

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