Blogcast #30 James Mahwhinney on media.com

Rebecca: So welcome to the Entrepreneurial Journey podcast. Today I have James Mawhinney with me. Hi James, how are you?

James: Hi Rebecca. Very well, thank you. How are you?

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m really well indeed. Very well. So you are the CEO and founder of media.com. Tell our wonderful audience what that does.

James: Sure. So media.com is designed to solve probably one of the biggest problems facing the world’s population at the moment, which is misinformation. I believe misinformation is a greater threat to society than climate change because it’s something that can have almost an instant impact on people’s decisions and that can be personal decisions, business decisions, political decisions, and everything in between. So it’s a project and business I’m very passionate about. That’s become a lot more of a business. It’s really a mission for me and look forward to sharing more with you and our listeners.

Rebecca: Yeah, brilliant. When I was doing my research into you, I thought there has to be a story behind this and what is that backstory? Because this is clearly something that’s very, very important to you and tell me why that is.

James: So the investment group that I set up in 2009, in 2016, we decided to go out to the public and raise funds so that we could scale up our operations, and we did that using debt instruments. And for the uninitiated, that means that their loans effectively. So we accumulated at our peak about 750 lenders over the next three and a half years and raised about a quarter of a billion dollars. Then in March, 2022 significant things happened. One happened to the rest of the world, which was covid, and at the same time we got targeted by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, who a few months before had been had a conspiracy floated past them where the deputy commissioner acted on it and thought that we’re running a fraudulent when we weren’t. That triggered 25 court cases, over 10 million in legal fees, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.

It has impacted thousands of lives. My nearly 4-year-old daughter was born 72 hours after the regulator issued proceedings. I’ve spent the last four years working with lawyers when I should be playing with her at the playground. And all of this was really driven by most unfortunate misinformation campaign that found its way into the Australian media very quickly. And we’ve had literally hundreds of articles, and if we spoke three or four years ago, you would’ve considered that I was Jack the Ripper. If you Google me now, you can probably see things have changed a lot further in our favour. Now, we’re not through it yet, but we’re probably in the third or fourth quarter kicking with the wind. And ultimately the evidence is on our side that we weren’t the business that unfortunately many first thought. But the issue with the world as it stands at the moment, insofar as misinformation goes, the digital footprint that we’re all aware of isn’t just in terms of where you’ve been and what you’ve clicked on, but it’s also clearly what can be said about you in the media.

And because the media, as I said earlier, can impact so many everyday decisions from who you have business relationships with, personal relationships, who the regulators of the world go after, I thought there needs to be a way to help people and establish something that will bring the world closer to the truth, if I can put it that way, in a world where currently there’s a big divergence between fact and how that’s portrayed in the media. So as I said earlier, this is a lot more than just a business. This is very much a mission and we’ve had an incredible reception around the world, and I’m very excited what the future holds for media.com.

Rebecca: Goodness me, what a terrible personal story for you. How do you keep body and soul together, James?

James: It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a very traumatic situation. If anything, it’s probably taken a toll on my fiancée and partner who we got engaged probably a year before all of this blew up thinking that we were going to have a wedding and enjoyed our lives. But the reality is it’s taken a toll on our family and extended family. Even at that, we’d lost friendship groups just uninvited from weddings and all sorts of weird and wonderful things because people would Google and they’d think based on what the media said, which is unfortunately misrepresented our business and me as an individual, the ripple effect of this has just been catastrophic. And it’s once that horse bolts and someone writes something about you online, particularly at a big publication where they’re motivated by advertising revenues as we’re all aware, clickbait headlines are now more prominent than they ever have been because advertising revenues in traditional publications are really fallen off the cliff, and so they’re scrambling to keep afloat and they’re doing that at the expense of people like myself and millions of others around the world that unfortunately become the victims of, sometimes it’s innocent misinformation, sometimes it’s a bit more serious than that when it’s disinformation.

So it’s a big problem. And interestingly in the last probably six to nine months that I’ve been speaking to people, either one-on-one or in large groups of hundreds of people at various events that we’ve been with media.com, everyone’s talking about and agrees that this is a big problem, but no one’s talking about solutions. The best solution they’ve come up with today is just got to be more careful about what you write, which isn’t good enough. There has to be a technology solution, and that’s what we’ve come up with media com.

Rebecca: Right? We’ll get into the technology in a minute, but I just want to explain to people, I’ve been down so many rabbit holes on the internet and listened to so many podcasts that I understand exactly what you’re saying, but some people won’t. And what happens is that a traditional, I’m going to put that in inverted journalist will write an article that is factually incorrect, but then what other media outlets do is just simply repeat that story without checking the facts involved in the story. And so you’re absolutely right, the misinformation just gets repeated over and over and over and over again. And even so-called worthy publications such as, I’m not going to name names in case somebody wants to sue me, but let’s just say very, very well established and once well thought of daily newspapers do this, they do not go back and check the facts of the original source and so that it’s there in print in what most people will see as a bonafide media outlet, but they’ve not double checked it. Am I right in saying that, James?

James: Look, absolutely. I can provide numerous examples, but there’s two that stand out at the moment. One is at the moment in a, so-called, I’d say formally esteemed publication in the finance world in Australia. You can read an article that was actually only published a couple of months ago, still trying to have a go at me as an individual that said I was and have been banned as a company director for 20 years. I’ve never been banned as a company director. So what do you do in that instance? You ring up your public relations manager, which costs you money, they ring up the journalist, which the journalist is isn’t interested in the truth anyway because they’ve got to sell newspapers and it sticks. And then what happens, as you rightly said, Rebecca, that then gets syndicated across other networks. And the other example was, this is probably about three years ago when I got, at one point I was banned from leaving the country.

I was banned for 20 years in dealing financial products. I’m now in New York, I can leave the country and have been for over a year now. And the full court overturned the 20 year ban and found the regulator’s case was mistaken and absurd. But as a consequence of what occurred a few years ago, we contacted another esteemed publication in Sydney that had published an article entitled ASIC Hooks a Big Fish, and it talked about how my investment company was now defunct and it wasn’t defunct, it existed, I existed, we still had all of our lenders and clients in place. We had supplies, we had staff, we had assets, we had unencumbered assets. And we wrote to this publication and the journalist and said, look, this is incorrect. Would you mind changing it? And the answer was, it’s not incorrect because this other publication, the one I mentioned earlier, says that’s how it’s, and so you can see that you end up in a situation where these layers upon layers of misinformation, they get syndicated.

And then when social media came about, this misinformation has just spread like wildfire. And now if we fast forward to where we are today with artificial intelligence multiplied by the risk of bots creating fake profiles on social networks, you find yourself in a situation where misinformation can be artificially generated on inauthentic fake profiles and touted or promoted under aliases. This is a very dangerous environment that we’re now all of us are participating in when you consider the amount of screen time we’re spending. And unfortunately, it’s also means that for all things, there’s a minority that ruins it for the rest. And so there’s a lot of bad actors out there. I’m not just talking about journalists that think that they’re more activists that I’ve had a few experiences with rather than journalists. But it is something now that is really, as I said upfront, this is a significant threat to society.

And just to finish on this point, we did, we were at the Sundance Home Festival in January at Park City in Utah to, we had a stall for media.com for a few days. And as a result of that event, a few days later, our public relations team sent us an email and said, Hey, look, we’ve got you some great coverage. And I clicked on one of the articles and apparently I’m listed on the Forbes top 50 entrepreneurs to watch list. And so that is also incorrect. And so you have a situation where, it’s almost an extreme example, but certainly not the only example of misinformation. You can read one publication that says, I was banned from operating a company for 20 years and still am apparently. And on the other end of things within it was only a handful of weeks after that article that said that I was on the Forbes top 50 people to watch list. Now this is the state of what’s going on on the internet, and this is why something I really believe has to be done about it.

Rebecca: You’re quite right. Let’s get into the detail of your business. How does it work?

James: Sure. So three and a half years ago when all of this occurred to me as in the terrible situation with situation with my investment company occurred, I was asked to respond to a report that some insolvency practitioners had written, and it was riddled with errors. It needed to be clarified, it was full of misinformation, you could say, using the very modern term that transpired to be being filed in court. There were then news articles that were written off the back of that that had alleged I’d transferred millions of dollars of cash and investors assets to the British Virgin Islands, which I hadn’t. And I thought our lawyer said, James, can you please respond to this? And I thought, well, how do I respond? Do I write something down? Do I just mark it up in Word or PDF and comment on it? Do I do a spreadsheet?

Do I do a voice record? Do I do a video? And I thought there needs to be some form of online central platform where anyone in the world can respond to any form of media. And so that’s where the idea was conceived in about June of 2020 and in July of last year when we really decided to move this project forward, having done a bit of preparatory work earlier than that, we decided that we needed to put this under the best domain name in the world that we could find. media.com was available. Everyone asked me how we got it. It was bought off someone based in Kuwait who bought it in 2003. It was a secondary sale. It wasn’t cheap, but we’re very lucky and I consider that we really are, we have the care and responsibility of making sure that something of significance and that is meaningful for society is done with a domain name like media com, so that we acquired that in July.

And the way the platform works is that we give the ability for users to create profiles like on any other social network, except there’s a couple of differences. Firstly, every profile is verified using the same type of technology. It’s called KYC or know your customer that the banks use. If you look at the banking industry, the banking industry a couple of decades ago was required by law to know who their customers were, why to stop money laundering and financing of terrorism activities and things like that. If you look at the social media industry, it is being promoted and content is being promoted from accounts primarily. When I say primarily the vast majority, more than 90 to 95% that have not been verified. So the social networks actually don’t know who their customers are. They know who their advertising customers are, of course, because that’s where they make their money, but they dunno who their actual end users are.

And Twitter’s attempted to introduce a blue tick. Facebook and LinkedIn have also attempted to do the same thing, but it’s very difficult in the technology world and the internet world for once a business does something one way to then change to another. And that’s why profile verification on media.com is absolutely critical since inception. So what that does is it introduces accountability. If you think about what Elon Musk has said about X or Twitter, formerly Twitter anyway, he calls it a town square and his town square is the equivalent of a town square where you have the option of putting a big brown paper bag over your head and shouting from the rooftops, whatever your views are. We don’t believe that that is actually a town square and that if people are going to promote their views, that should be done from where anonymity is not really a function.

And there’s platforms out there where you want to be anonymous, you can be, but that’s not us. A couple of other key things is that we don’t allow comments. I jumped on Twitter three years ago to try and get my voice out after we had some horrible court rulings made against us, which got obviously since overturned. And when I did that, the short seller that had let’s just say communicated his spidey views to the regulator were running a fraudulent scheme, jumped on with his 50 or 60,000 followers and took the narrative down a totally different path. So reputationally, it did nothing to try and improve or even from a legal standpoint, improve our position. It actually did more harm.

So with a profile now that’s verified and we know who you are and the ability to publish content in a manner that can’t be responded to, of course it can be shared on other networks and be responded to there, but our goal is to become the place where people around the world and businesses around the world can launch their content from an authentic source and by content they can do three, four primary things. One is they can post just like on social media, so many people will think we’re a social network, we’re a lot more than that. The second thing is you can publish your media statements from there. So we have a Newswire service that’s about to be launched. The third thing, and probably the feature that most people are interested in is our response capability. And what that allows you to do is to take a URL from any webpage in the world, paste it intermediate com, click on respond, and then up will come a page, go and grab the article up will come a page.

It says in the left hand column, enter your snippet of texts that you’d like to respond to. So I could say, alright, Mr. Me has been banned for 20 years of being a company director, and on the right hand side I can write my response. And that response is No, actually haven’t the journalist got it unfortunately horribly wrong. And then I can label that response. Is it false, misleading, defamatory? And there’s about 15 different options that you can include there when you hit publish that sits there on your media.com profile effectively for life. There’s a few other features, but in essence that’s what we do. So what the significance of these features mean is, I’m going to use an analogy that I can relate to. I’m sure anyone that’s ever been to court either involved in it or even as an innocent bystander will understand how the justice system works.

You’ve got a judge, you’ve got the applicant or the plaintiff, and you’ve got the defendant In a courtroom, you have this quiet environment where the applicant can state their case. I equate the applicant or the plaintiff to the media or someone that wants to make an allegation against you and make a particular statement. This person’s been banned for 20 years as being a company director. For example, at the moment with social media, the courtroom is the equivalent of chaos for the defendant because there is no quiet, the judge is the public of course, and they’re making their view based on a defendant that is in an environment where there is no quiet and there is no really weight or credibility put behind their response. And so what we’ve done is actually very simple and you think about it in a justice context because what we’re allowing respondents, people that have had something said about them, and it may even be a positive thing, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but if the applicant says such and such in a courtroom this person did, this person got banned for 20 years as a director, the defendant on their media.com profile, which has been verified, so it is actually them with effectively a hundred percent accuracy can stake their position free from interference, and then the judge, the public can access their profile for free and see what their response is.

And the significance of this is if you think about, let’s say this can take place hopefully if not thousands, preferably millions of times a day in a world where truth and fact are diverging at a really great rate because of AI, fake profiles, just media organisations that are desperate for advertising revenues. And so the world’s literally going like this and I’m a living breathing example of that. If with media.com we can get lots and lots of people saying, well, this is what this person said over here and this is what I say, this is what this person said or this organisation said, this is what I say. If that can happen enough in real time, we’re setting up an alert system. So as soon as your name gets referenced in an article, bang, your mobile phone gets a notification or you get an email, you can click on respond, and in real time you can respond to it.

What happens then is the journalist or the person that wrote about it, we’re setting it up so that you can also send them a notification. And so what happens is if there’s millions of these little iterations of, well actually here’s my side of the story actually, here’s my side of the story. When that occurs, we should then actually start to see a convergence back towards truth and back towards the centre. immediate.com can play a role where we even improve that by 1%, let alone hopefully a lot more than that. Over time, the world will end up in a much more, I think, safer environment where as you know, relationships, the key to a successful relationship in any capacity is communication. And what we’re finding at the moment is that there’s a complete breakdown of communication in society, which we’re hoping we can solve with what we’re doing.

Rebecca: I really applaud you for doing that because I was horrified when Google released its AI image piece of kit and you put in an image of Vikings and it came up with black Vikings , it’s like, no, historically that’s inaccurate and please don’t push your agenda, please just give me factual information. So if we’ve got a single base about individuals that is factual and they’re verified, then it doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with them. We’ve got a source and we’ve got an original source. And I think the issue at the moment is that we don’t have a trusted source, and if we can get this, then it gives us a baseline starting point because we used to be able to trust journalists, we can’t anymore, and I think Covid taught us that, and this is fantastic. Now where’s this going to go? What do you think you’ll do with it? Where do you see it heading?

James: Yeah, good question. So we’ve already got a pre-registration from, I think we’re up to about 140 countries now. So it’s been very well received even though we haven’t actually released it to the public with full access to it, in the coming weeks, we’re going to be releasing more profiles. We actually activated profile number one last week. You can Google. Her name is Chantel Bayer, and she’s a female space entrepreneur who launched on a SpaceX rocket to the moon, a space art cube containing about 150 Jeff Koons Artworks is one of the most probably successful living artists. So we launched that profile to tell the media.com story that it’s not just about people that have had a bad reputation or anything like that, it’s for everyone. But we’re planning over the next couple of months to start to open up the platform to those that are pre-registered by June/July this year we’re anticipating having full public access.

So it’s a very exciting time for us and the reception that we’ve had has been incredible public relations firms, including some of the worlds largest, have very keen interest in some, including the founder of at one stage the world’s largest public relations firm. Larry Weber sign up for a profile, he’s on our homepage and brochures and things like that. So we’re very fortunate right through to very high profile lawyers unrelated to my situation in the United States and just such a diverse range of people when they hear not just the backstory but what this should mean for society in creating exactly what you’ve just talked about, which is a source of truth or at least a safe place where the person can speak their truth uninterrupted. It’s such a simple concept, but it has to be done. And that’s why I say I think twice now, this is a lot more than a business. This is a mission because it should be such a significant development for the internet and just for society in general.

Rebecca: I totally agree. Now, is it free to preregister? That’s the first question.

James: Yeah, free to preregister. Unlike the social networks, you are not the product. So we do have then paid plans, so we will verify you for free, but if you want to have a public profile and you want to start posting and sharing information and things like that then and responding using that response feature, then yeah, there’ll be a nominal subscription. We’re talking not much, probably less than $10 a month to be involved just cheaper than Netflix and all of these other things that we spend probably a lot more money on. But the idea is that in order for us to obviously have a business and promote what we’re doing and where you’re not the product and where you’re not susceptible to an algorithm that is completely driven towards pushing ads in your face because that’s what drives the company’s share price. We believe that that old way of doing things isn’t going to be sustainable, particularly as the regulators around the world move more towards realising and recognising in legislation that profile verification is absolutely an absolute must.

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely. I noticed LinkedIn now do a verification, which at the moment is voluntary. I wouldn’t be surprised if they move to making that mandatory at some point for obvious reasons. Somebody at some point is going to come along and offer you a lot of money for this, James, I would imagine. Are you going to keep control because there’s a lot of integrity built into this, which is very personal to you. I mean, how do you feel about the future? And it will be very attractive to investors and purchasers.

James: Yeah. Well, thank you. I’m glad you see the value in it. Look, we’ve got no plans at all for quite some time you’ve ever to divest our interest in what we’re doing to an acquirer or anything like that. Yes. I mean, arguably the business model stacks up and could in fact come very successful, valuable business and hopefully it does of course. But you hit the nail on the head, there is a question of integrity and making sure that something like this is in the right hands. And so that goes from everything in terms of the people that work with us. We’re in the process of assembling a very high quality board of some very globally recognised leaders across and a range of areas including public relations and media and journalism and even the legal industry and things like that. So getting the structure so that ultimately people put trust in the fact that this is a safe place is really fundamental, and that includes down to making sure that those that effectively own and operate it all have the right values. So look, it’s not selling. It is not on our radar at all. We’ve got to successfully commercialise it and get hopefully millions upon millions of people using it so that every day of the week there’s these iterations of responses that can help bring the world back to where it needs to be in terms of communicating with each other a lot more effectively.

Rebecca: This fills me with hope, just when I thought most hope was lost and I was ready to withdraw into my little cocoon and sold the rest of the planet, this is like, ah, finally, this brings real hope. James, this is fantastic. So I applaud you and I shall be pre-registering, which is my next question. We’re a tiny business, I have to say. I mean, we hardly have any followers on YouTube, but I know we’ve made it because we’ve already had some angry responses to some very innocuous videos, so it’s like, oh my God, even with 150 subscribers on YouTube, it has started. And so even for small business owners, is it worthwhile for somebody like me doing it, do you think?

James: Yeah, look, absolutely. If you look at the universe of media dot com’s users at the epicentre of those that have their haters or misinformation or even disinformation written about them, and so they’re in crisis and I’ve been in that position and I needed a tool like this, and if it existed, this situation wouldn’t have occurred. You then go out to the next level, which is an even large number of people and businesses around the world, is that they understand the value of their reputation and they want to protect it. You then go to the next layer, and I call that the LinkedIn layer. They’ve got a billion users on there of companies and individuals, and a lot of people, they’re just on there because they think they should be on there, but really they’re there because of the credibility that it arguably brings them. Obviously there’s job features and functions and things like that, but it’s a credibility and reputation thing when you think about it.

And then you have all of those, which is kind of the other five or 6 billion people around the world that want to see what the others are saying. And so whether it’s an individual, regardless of whether or not you’ve got a good, bad or indifferent profile or an organisation that has a brand to protect, which is every organisation in the world that deals with the public, we believe that having i media.com profile, given the number of eyeballs they are going to be looking at this, and now we’re already starting to see that media dot com’s ranking exceptionally well in Google search results for that first profile that we created for Chantelle Bayer within, I think 72 hours were number five on Google, and at the moment we’re now number two or number one, when you Google her name, fantastic. That’s our first profile. So we anticipate that when people are Googling company names and individual names, that we’re going to get a lot of good search results and ultimately drive a lot of traffic and eyeballs on the content that people publish on media.

Rebecca: Oh, great. Now here’s a question. I understand what drives you. I normally ask that towards the end of the interview, but it’s absolutely crystal clear what drives you. So that’s fine. If your business had a personality or a character, how would you describe it? James?

James: Interesting question. If I can put it in a geographic sense, probably an unusual way to answer it. I’d call it Switzerland. I would say we’re Switzerland because we need to be, we’re about giving each person their own safe space. They can say what they want. Their views may not be right, they may be wrong, but that’s not for us to determine. We’re not fact checkers. We can’t be anyone that thinks that you’re going to set up a business to fact check gazillion pieces of content that go online. It’s impractical. So I think personality wise, we are very much like a country that has to accommodate, everyone has to accept that there is a diverse range of views, and we think that that’s very much in our DNA because this is about giving people a trusted platform with their own authentic selves when personalities and views can be expressed.

Rebecca: Great. I love it. And even if you don’t like those views, they’re there and people are allowed to have them and they’re allowed to put their side of the story forward, and I really like that. It’s only fair, and if you don’t want to read it, don’t read it. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it?

James: It is as simple as that. Look, we’re anticipating and we’re already seeing this, that people are copying content that’s on media.com and then going and talking about it on social media, great. That’s what we can very much safely coexist with the social networks. And we hope that as more profiles are created and contents created, that will start to immerse itself in the other networks. And at least people know when they see the mediacom to domain name, they know that, hey, that’s an authentic profile. It’s from an authentic source and that’s that person’s views and they’re entitled to those, and you can go and tweet and comment on it and do all of the other things on any other network you like.

Rebecca: Brilliant, amazing. Listen, I wish you all the look in the world. I’m sure it’s going to be a huge success. I’m just glad I’ve got to interview you now before you become a mega star James, because

James: Thank you.

Rebecca: You’ll be on the big podcast soon enough. I look forward to seeing you on Joe Rogan eventually, but that’s fantastic. All the luck in the world, and thank you so much for your time today.

James: No, thank you very much for the opportunity. It does mean the world to me as well, and I wish you all the best too. And thank you again,