As the Brexit vote loomed in June 2016, people were increasingly compelled to share their opinion on what would be the best decision for the country.
Endless hours of debate were broadcast across TV and radio. This then trickled down to pubs and dinner tables, where yet more hours of discussion would be held.
Entrepreneur Turi Munthe was not alone in observing that these conversations were often unproductive and, at times, descended into heated argument. But this is not another story about fake news: Munthe would take a wholly new approach.
“We’ve spent billions of words talking about Brexit and actually there’s a very limited number of arguments,” Munthe tells BusinessCloud. “The closer we got to the 23rd of June, the more I realised we’d been hearing the same arguments over and over and over again on all sides.”
The 43-year-old Anglo-French journalist-turned-media entrepreneur and now VC had spent his career boiling complexity down into simplicity. By taking a step back, he realised that there were just a handful of opinions within the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps on the likes of sovereignty, security and economics. It was possible to map all the major opinions on Brexit on the back of an envelope.
“What hit me was that if you could map something as complicated or as seemingly big as Brexit, you could do the same thing for pretty much everything,” he says. “There are actually a very limited number of opinions on pretty much everything.”
This realisation would be the birth of Parlia, a project described as a ‘Wikipedia for opinions’ where both sides of an argument can be documented side by side. “When I first floated the idea of Parlia I went to speak to Wikipedia and, very gratefully, with Jimmy Wales himself,” reveals Munthe. “The people there thought I was crazy to focus on the controversial topics. Those are the articles on which they do the most work for the least return.”
Munthe believes Parlia will vary from Wikipedia in one fundamental way. Parlia’s pages will categorise both – or all – opinions at once with equal weighting. “We don’t need to come to a conclusion,” he says. “All we needed to make sure is that the descriptions of these arguments are fair and are not inflammatory.”
Munthe began his career as a freelancer, writing about Middle Eastern politics after dropping out of a PhD on the topic from New York University.
He then founded Demotix in 2007. It would become the biggest network of photo journalists in the world and be acquired by the Bill Gates-owned Corbis in November 2012. Demotix allowed photographers and video journalists of any skill level to sell their content to major media outlets.
After the Demotix exit he would go on to co-found Porto i/o, a leading tech hub in Portugal, and also serve as the interim MD of Press Association Images. He then became a venture partner for investor North Base Media, a role he still holds today. He is also a board director at political pluralism platform openDemocracy.
Now that Parlia has evolved from idea to business, it needs a business case – and Munthe believes that Parlia could be the top search result for open-ended questions such as ‘is abortion moral?’, a query which returns 33 billion results.
That top spot is often held by Wikipedia, which is fighting fires to remain factually accurate. In other cases, that first result is a particularly biased answer. “When people ask open-ended questions of Google, I’m not sure Google knows exactly where to send them,” he says.
Google provided a prototype investment grant from its Google Digital News Initiative to the start-up 18 months ago. The European organisation was created to “support high-quality journalism through technology and innovation”.
Munthe hopes Parlia will have access to Google’s expertise as it grows, but he also believes Parlia can help the tech giant. “We’re trying to help by being profoundly impartial, by being extremely careful about what we understand as bias, by thinking very deeply about the ethics of our design.”
Parlia has also been helped in its development by cash injection from independent grant-making foundation the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, to help it apply machine learning and natural language processing to its growing pot of data on the opinions of the world.
Munthe wants Parlia to collect opinions in the same way a dictionary collects words – not as an authority on language but simply a document of what is being said. To remain fair, the design shows all top-level opinions side-by-side, with supporting arguments following underneath.
“If we tell the world that we’re trying to rationalise discourse and make everybody cuddlier and better at listening to one another then most people will ignore us,” he says. “I’d love that to happen. I just don’t think there’s a huge user behaviour case for it.
“But if we are answering questions in a way which is satisfying people who ask ‘is Meghan Markle spoiled?’ or ‘is Greta Thunberg being manipulated?’ while sharing the various views, then we could be a really exciting medium.”
As with Wikipedia, Parlia will rely on content created by the public which is then edited by authorised users. For all the battles being fought beneath the surface of Wikipedia, the user-generated model has become a surprisingly reliable method of content creation.
But Munthe says this front of contributors thanklessly keeping Wikipedia credible could be more diverse. “Most of the contributor base of Wikipedia are male, white and Western,” he says. “I want people on the proper right and on people on the proper left, religious and profoundly irreligious. I need real diversity in our contributor base. Not just politically but also culturally.”
A page on the existence of God, for instance, would see contributors on both sides of the philosophical fence add their position without the need to destroy the opposing point of view. “We have multiple positions on whether God exists, and all of those – if they are representative of a big enough grouping of opinion – have valid inclusions on Parlia and they need to be there.”
He adds on a particularly controversial subject: “There are two or three positions on abortion.
“There’s the position that abortion should always be illegal. There’s a position that says that abortion should be allowed to anybody who wants it, and there’s the position that it should only be allowed in extreme circumstances. I’ve just covered every single opinion on abortion. The same thing is true of euthanasia, if we should abolish the monarchy, whether Donald Trump is mentally unstable.”
There are lighter discussions to be had too. A page currently on Parlia is seeing the question ‘Who is the greatest rapper of all time?’ populated by its users, making cases for the likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem.
If a user believes the answer is Tupac Shakur, they can simply add that to the discussion. The more opinions its users have on the topic, the more columns are added to the page.
Munthe says it is still early days for the start-up, and it has not and will not have an official ‘launch’.
“You can make little steps without anybody noticing and continue to make those steps until they become bigger steps,” he says. “We will never complete the project, we’ll just keep on iterating and trying to optimise the experience.”
Is Parlia destined to be the next Wikipedia? It either is, or it is not.