Healthy digital public sphere

What is a healthy digital public sphere?

A healthy digital public sphere is a vital element for democracy and could be described as one where:

  • citizens can inform themselves based on facts and are exposed to trustworthy and independent analysis and a plurality of views,
  • all voices are expressed and heard safely and freely, independent of race, gender, or sexual orientation and without fear of abuse, violence or hate speech
  • adequate checks and balances, accountability and transparency apply, upholding democratic principle, fundamental rights and the protection of citizens.

The issues we want to address

The public sphere is a forum through which information is distributed and where citizens inform themselves, gather, share ideas and content, form opinions, voice their concerns, and mobilise. 

Digital technology and social media have fundamentally changed the way information is produced, distributed, and consumed. This expansion of the public sphere has brought with it a set of opportunities and challenges.

On the one hand, it has opened new avenues for activism, association, and freedom of expression.  On the other, there are several issues related to the structure and functioning of the digital public sphere such as the market dominance of certain private companies (e.g., online advertising and its impact on independent media), the de-facto gatekeeper and content curation role of tech platforms through algorithms and the fact that often business models tend to profit from the worst instinct of people, where outrageous or extreme content often gets the most engagement. We find ourselves with a public sphere divided into 2 parts: the physical public sphere, which is governed by a set of rules, (e.g., libel law, election campaigning rules) and the digital public sphere, where many of those offline rules have not been translated online.  The digital public sphere is also characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability of its stakeholders, despite the various – mostly self-regulated – actions taken by some players recently.

This has very serious and direct consequences on the digital public sphere such as the proliferation of disinformation, hate speech and anti-rights narratives, leading to exacerbated social divisions and polarization. The current functioning of the digital public sphere affects marginalized communities to an even greater extent: Often these voices are not very prominent – if not absent – in debates about shaping the digital public sphere.  At the same time, these are the primary target of online harassment, abuse, violence, or surveillance, limiting their ability to exercise their fundamental rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends with new challenges for the digital public sphere, particularly related to the spread of misleading and potentially harmful information and conspiracy theories. Such developments feed the anxiety and deepen the feeling of losing control over the surrounding reality in many people, which is often exploited by some political actors. These aspects directly impact the social contract and democracy at their core. It highlights the need to reverse the current tendency and shape a digital public sphere that serves people, (an equitable) society and democracy.

Regulating the digital public sphere

Since its inception in 2018, Civitates has worked tackling issues impacting discourse online such as disinformation and the citizen’s information diet, polarisation, outdated rules or lack thereof, governing how it functions and the power that private companies hold. We funded a wide variety of initiatives to better understand what is happening in the digital public sphere, build the evidence base and advocate for regulation of the digital public sphere in a way that upholds democracy and fundamental rights.  All those initiatives aimed at contributing to the fostering of a healthy digital public sphere.

We are currently in a phase where the challenges of the digital public sphere have been acknowledged by policy makers worldwide and several legislative initiatives are being developed at the EU level to regulate the functioning of the digital ecosystem. 

A lot of these policy proposals have the potential to address some of the key issues that affect the digital public sphere. Measures to tackle content moderation, market dominance, transparency and accountability of social media platforms are all spread over several legislative proposals while being interlinked and highly co-dependent.

Another very important aspect of the advocacy work towards a healthy digital public sphere is the enforceability of those policy proposals (and existing legislation) and their sanction mechanism, without which the proposals are reduced to mere statements of principles.

The role of civil society

Civil society organisations have contributed greatly to initiating this policy momentum and to the development of these policy proposals. As they are being discussed in various policy circles the civil society advocates working towards a healthy digital public sphere need support to follow and feed into the legislative process.

There will be many opportunities to shape the digital public sphere in the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission, with a broad range of stake holders with strong and potentially divergent interests. Supporting actors and their advocacy efforts at the EU and/or national level to create a safer online experience for citizens to express and communicate their ideas, through a healthy digital public sphere is a key priority for Civitates.

Thus, through different mechanisms, Civitates supports civil society organisations that:

  • advocate for policy approaches towards a healthy digital public sphere
  • build the capacity and constituency of civil society to engage in the debate and address the current, emerging, and future challenges of the digital public sphere.

Our grantees

Civitates is proud to support the organizations listed below that are working actively towards improving the digital information ecosystem in Europe.