How is Covid-19 changing the digital sphere?

Observations from our latest Civitates convening​

Concentrating on the threats that responses to the current health crisis present to the digital sphere is necessary, but we shouldn’t forget that the crisis creates some opportunities too.

Last week we (virtually) convened our grantees working towards a healthy digital public sphere. The discussions highlighted that when talking about digitalisation, it can be difficult to think along positive lines. After all, we’re seeing negative online tendencies, such as online misinformation influencing election outcomes and a lack of transparency on how our data is handled and used by advertising and targeting companies – just to name a few.

The pandemic is shaping up to be a defining moment for tech platforms and regulators. Only time will tell if we are really seeing an end to the “techlash” and what the impact on civil society will be. Still, our grantees believe that the pandemic could be a momentum to promote new positive policies for the digital and offline world.

Civitates virtual convening with the grantees working towards a healthy digital sphere

Increased scepticism towards contact tracing apps

The current health crisis has led to collaboration between governments and tech giants to create so-called contact tracing apps. This has led to heated public debates about privacy and security issues, including important questions about privacy, security, effectiveness, and implementation. People increasingly understand that apps, rather than effectively fighting a pandemic, create a sense of false security. Rumena Filipova from Centre for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria emphasised that

“Governments and tech giants have started cooperating more closely, in ways that may have significant pitfalls. In such times, stressing citizen’s rights in the digital sphere should be a priority.”

If it isn’t true, it may get deleted

Misinformation and propaganda are old tools given a new life through the Internet and especially through social media platforms. The threats these developments present have been around for some time now and while people won’t stop spreading misinformation any time soon, the current Covid-19 crisis has persuaded popular social media platforms to take the issue at heart. As a result, such platforms have started monitoring and removing misinformation on topics related to public health in unprecedented ways. This could be yet another pitfall as the power to remove and moderate content currently lies with private cooperate actors and this moderation is not yet done in a transparent and accountable way.

Unique opportunity to understand misinformation  

We are currently faced with an unprecedented opportunity to study how online information flows ultimately affect health outcomes, and to evaluate the macro- and micro-level consequences of relying on automation to moderate content in a complex and evolving information environment. It is therefore of key importance that platforms provide transparency about content blocking and removal related to COVID-19, and that they provide access to this data to researchers, journalists and other civil society actors, while ensuring privacy.

Increased appetite for digital regulation

Policymakers seem more aware of the threats ad tech and tech giants present to individuals. People’s data has been collected, bought and sold for years but now the competition is becoming bigger and bigger with a lot of businesses relying on online sales. Privacy data breaches are rising, as are the number of online violations. As a result, the issue of digital rights is rising on the agenda of EU policymakers. As always, the devil is in the detail and civil society has an important job to play, ensuring that regulation isn’t too narrow in scope or risk concentrating power into the hands of unaccountable corporate actors or potentially hostile governments.

Increased cooperation in the field

Aware of the growing threats, “more and more civil society organisations have taken an interest in monitoring online harms and calling attention to digital rights violations. There is increasing public pressure for platforms to deliver on transparency, but voluntary data access regimes have failed to do so. And although civil society organizations have succeeded in making monitoring tools more easily available, there is a clear need for a more robust data access framework that is legally enforceable,” shared Mackenzie Nelson from AlgorithmWatch.

Civil society organisations are also cooperating more to emphasise the issues and challenges around creating a healthy digital sphere. Building connections across different parts of Europe helps build resilience. The West, which historically has less experience with the manipulation of the public discourse, can reduce its vulnerability by learning from the East.

The grantees collectively thought of the trends shaping the field of digital information on a shared wave diagram.

Where do we go next?

As next steps for securing a safe digital environment, our grantees agreed that it is essential for people to understand online threats better. So, organisations working on digital rights and disinformation, for example, need to bring their storytelling to the next level. Currently the tech policy discourse is too insular and the heavy use of jargon makes it difficult for people to resonate with the problems they are faced with.

It was stressed that, whatever we do as organisations, we should always put people before tech and profit. Tech should be there to serve people, not the other way around. Easier said than done, of course, especially when the bigger players in the field are profit-oriented tech giants. As such maybe it’s time to better define the rules on the new “social contract” between users and platforms.

While tech innovation is constantly happening, we should pay more close attention to the possible impact tech innovation may have on freedom and society. It was stressed again that tech business models should be made accountable. A lot of solutions lie in policy and what is to be done is to inspire policymakers to work on those issues.

The overall conclusion of the three-day convening was that in this time of social distancing and tech socialisation we need to be strategic about turning challenges into opportunities. For civil society organisations, it often feels like the biblical battle between David and Goliath, but it is worth remembering that David won!

Information about the convening

Within the framework of Funding Plus, Civitates regularly gathers its grantees to foster cooperation and cross-border networking. This was the second meeting with the grantees working on a healthy digital sphere.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the convening was held online, spread over 3 afternoons (6 – 8 May 2020). Thanks to our facilitators from Kumquat Consult the discussions were almost just as engaging as when in person.