What we tackle
Public discourse plays a vital role in open, democratic societies. It is an important forum through which people can voice their concerns and form opinions. Moreover, public discourse provides input for decision making processes. Digitization has fundamentally changed the way information is produced, distributed and consumed and thereby affects the public discourse. The implications of these changes cannot yet be fully grasped.
Recent years have witnessed the rise of a handful of technological platforms as dominant players in a digital information ecosystem that has allowed an unpresented outreach of news and information. Online platforms provide new opportunities for social engagement, both in the production of news and information, and in online activism and movement building. At the same time, the functioning of tech platforms also raises concerns on the quality of public discourse.
Algorithms, which have replaced the human editor as information gatekeepers, are designed to help advertising succeed rather than to inform the public about matters of societal concern. Additionally, unlike with traditional media, there are few potent mechanisms for holding tech platforms accountable. Furthermore, the lack of regulation and transparency of the algorithms used by online platforms, the role of these platforms and their interactions with the digital advertising industry and political actors, and issues related to data protection and data exploitation, make it easier to manipulate public discourse through disinformation. Moreover, some current regulatory responses can be problematic for democracy when they are focused on content regulation, and thereby likely to criminalize certain forms of speech and expression, negatively impacting freedom of speech.
The societal discussion on this topic is expanding, with a wide variety of stakeholders raising their voices. Among them are authorities (e.g. the European Commission’s high-level expert group on fake news and disinformation), media organizations, technological and commercial companies, and a range of civil society organizations (e.g. freedom of expression groups, digital rights groups…). Each actor brings its own perspective but coordinated efforts to deal with the challenges at hand are few. Additional knowledge is crucially required to fully understand the implications of the digital public sphere.
As stated by the Council of Europe, “the fast pace of social, economic and technological change makes it imperative to adapt the institutions of democracy to the requirements of the 21st century. The legitimacy of democracy – and its future – depends on the ability to open up new, attractive ways to engage with all citizens.”
Democracy needs constant investment and European philanthropy has an important role to play considering its track record in promoting democratic values, democratic practice, and European civil societies.