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INTERNET GOVERNANCE FORUM DEBATES THE IMPACT OF DIGITIZATION ON POLITICS, PUBLIC TRUST AND DEMOCRACY

Fake News, Individual Responsibility in Fighting Manipulated Information, Digital Empowerment and Digital Literacy of Citizens Dominate the Debate
19 December 2017

The twelfth Internet Governance Forum held this morning its second high-level thematic session on the impact of digitization on politics, public trust and democracy, focusing on the benefits and challenges of digitization in enabling democratic discourse and participation, and creating inclusive policy-making.

Nathalie Ducommun, Talk Master of Swiss Television RTS, moderated the session and Katharina Hoene of Diplo Foundation acted as remote moderator.

Speaking in the first segment of the discussion were Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society at the European Commission; Dunja Mijatovic, International Expert on Human Rights and Media Freedom, and Board Member of Access Now; Hasanul Haq Inu, Minister of Information of Bangladesh; Hossam Elgamal, Chairman of the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre; Martin Chungong, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director of the Digital Asia Hub; Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation; and Robert Strayer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy at the US Department of State.

Speaking in the second segment of the discussion were Bobby Duffy, Global Director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute; Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; Sébastien Soriano, Chairman of the French National Regulatory Authority for Telecoms and Posts (ARCEP) and Chairman of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC); Farida Dwi Cahyarini, Secretary-General, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of Indonesia; Claudia Luciani, Director of Democratic Governance and Anti-Discrimination at the Council of Europe; Gonzalo Navarro, Executive Director of the Latin American Internet Association; Noel Curran, Director General of the European Broadcast Union; and Nighat Dad, Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan.

Opening Remarks

In his opening remarks, Philipp Metzger, Director General of the Swiss Federal Office of Communications, said that the digital space, as a cornerstone of the public policy space, could be a great enabler for more inclusive democratic discourse and participation, and a more inclusive policy-making. Digitization, and especially social media platforms, empowered citizens. But digitization also posed new challenges to political processes, public trust and democracy, said Mr. Metzger, listing some phenomena such as the pressure on liberal and open society by extremism and nationalism, growing insecurity and fears, “fake news”, and manipulation of facts and opinions. Accordingly, Mr. Metzger stressed the crucial importance of education and digital literacy, the responsibility of media actors and platform operators in supporting citizens in finding out who they could trust, and also the responsibility of governments and public institutions to create an enabling environment for a trustworthy public sphere.

How Can Digital Tools Promote Democratic Participation and Enhance Public Trust in the Online Space

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society at the European Commission, highlighted the considerable impact of digitization on citizens’ trust and democracy in past years. The spread of fake news on the Internet reflected social divisions and unease, which could influence political outcomes. The European Commission aimed to gage the whole magnitude of fake news by ensuring transparency and credibility of information, strengthening high-quality journalism, and thus working to enable citizens to make informed choices. “We are ill from the virus called fake news, which has become a political and popular obsession around the world,” said Dunja Mijatovic, International Expert on Human Rights and Media Freedom, and Board Member of Access Now. Fake news was as old as humanity. It was positive to have non-governmental organizations fact-checking news, but that should not shift the responsibility from governments and in particular from the judiciary.

Hasanul Haq Inu, Minister of Information of Bangladesh, reminded of the power emanating from the click of the mouse. Digitization was democratizing societies in real terms and every country should acknowledge the right to Internet and ensure free Internet for all. Only when all people became digitally empowered would corruption lessen and would people become more enlightened. The key benefits of digitization were inclusion – social and financial, viable information-sharing, and giving citizens an opportunity to voice their opinion, stressed Hossam Elgamal, Chairman of the Egyptian Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre. In Egypt, there was a mobile phone application called “Positive” which enabled people to voice their opinion, file a complaint or share information about a problem, including corruption. All data and information submitted by citizens was reviewed and analysed by a relevant government institution, which would then share verified information with the public through the media.

Martin Chungong, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, said that parliaments were experiencing low trust because they were not seen as transparent, accountable and representative. Digital technology could give parliaments tools to regain trust and become closer to people, especially to youth and those marginalized. Highlighting the issue of digital citizenship, Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director of the Digital Asia Hub, noted that users/consumers/beneficiaries had to be seen not as a target but as co-creators of a shared future. It was important to focus on marginalized populations and to actively counter damage to them. Algorithms or fake news were not failings of a technology but of a society: it was the exact same tools that excluded and marginalized that would include and empower.

Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, reminded that digitization had changed normalization of public discussions because nowadays those discussions continued after the door was closed. In Kenya, women used digital space to engage in public sphere discourse, to exert their say in political representation, and to reclaim democratic values. Citizens had to remain vigilant in order not to undermine the positive aspects of digitization, which allowed people all over the world to participate in the public sphere, said Robert Strayer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy at the United States’ Department of State. Given the centrality of freedom of expression and assembly, governments should ensure that their citizens were protected online.

In the ensuing discussion with the audience, participants highlighted the benefits of digitization, especially in developing countries where digitization provided women not only with employment opportunities, but also with a chance to break out of their traditional social confines and to have their voices heard. The Internet was a significant tool for spreading digital and information literacy, and the current obsession with fake news had, in fact, amplified the need for digital literacy. The panellists noted that the problem of manipulated information/fake news was closely related to the right to privacy. Fake news had become an industry whose diffusion on social media was in the hands of financially capable people. Responding to a question from the audience on how to deal with fake news spread by politicians, a panellist observed that there was a panoply of voices on the Internet and that it was not the role of the Government to suppress them.

Challenges of Digitization and Ways to Address Them

“It is not only what we are told and what we see but also what we think,” stressed Bobby Duffy, Global Director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute, as he spoke of the pain of cognitive dissonance and the role of bias. “Filter bubbles” were real, not because technology was evil, but because that was how humans were wired. Facts were clearly not enough, and many misperceptions were emotional and tied to identity. Using the term “fake news” was a trap - it was not “news”, it was misinformation, and it was detracting the people from reading the news, emphasised Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The systematic campaign of disinformation, particularly in a political context or in a context of elections, was a very serious problem.

Noel Curran, Director General of the European Broadcast Union, said that the notion of fake news/misinformation was not new at all; what was fundamentally different was its reach. States had a responsibility to legislate hate speech rather than fake news, whose normalization could negatively affect freedom of expression. Nighat Dad, Executive Director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, drew attention to violence and human rights violations online, while the danger of fake news narrative threatened to hijack democratic processes. The goal should not only be to bring technology and increase the number of connections, but to take on board democratic criticism from the public and be held accountable.

The biggest challenge to governments in the context of digitization was an unprecedented acceleration of innovation, said Sébastien Soriano, Chairman of the French National Regulatory Authority for Telecoms and Posts (ARCEP) and Chairman of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). Digitization challenged educators and policy makers to find solutions to issues that were emerging almost daily. Farida Dwi Cahyarini, Secretary-General, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of Indonesia, said that under the impact of digitization, the conventional social networks had moved online. The movement of digital literacy was getting stronger and there was a demand to supress the negative content on the Internet.

Claudia Luciani, Director of Democratic Governance and Anti-Discrimination at the Council of Europe, said that while the Internet was a huge enabler for civic movements and participative democracy initiatives, the impact of those initiatives raised important questions about their nature, sponsorship, transparency, and ability to deliver. Gonzalo Navarro, Executive Director of the Latin American Internet Association, reminded that one of the missing elements in the discussion was the creation of a framework for behaviour online. Education was an essential tool towards building a legal framework. In Latin American countries, governments had come up with such frameworks to balance rights and obligations.

In the ensuing discussion with in-person and online participants, the panellists suggested “reading across the aisle” as a useful tool to deal with “filter bubbles.” Fact-checking initiatives, as well as the growing constructive journalism and quality journalism initiatives, would need to be evaluated for effectiveness over time. The fact-checkers that worked best, as proven in the context of the French presidential election, were those that aligned different media outlets from across spectrum, rather than debunking the facts from one outlet only. The panellists also raised the issue of the impact of the paid-for political advertising – particularly those paid for with foreign money - on democracy and public confidence in political processes. There had to be more transparency on the use of foreign money for political advertising. Even democratic models were being challenged by new systems of communication; democracy was built on the idea that everyone could participate and contribute which called for everyone to be informed, and today the abundance of information was a challenge. The role of the judiciary would be key in dealing with that challenge.

Final Remarks

“There is hope,” said Philipp Metzger, Director General of the Swiss Federal Office of Communications. “Opportunities outweigh challenges.” He underscored the question of access to the Internet, without which there could be no further discussion. Stronger societies were those that included everyone, especially weaker members of society. The Internet was an important tool for sustainable development. It was quite clear that governments could learn from stakeholders and improve their public services. The interaction of governments with stakeholders was key to catching up with technological advances. Accountability and transparency of democratic institutions would improve through the use of digital technology; the digital world was unleashing a huge potential to increase public participation. In terms of challenges, the key one was educating people so that they could fully engage in democratic processes and decision-making online. As for the issue of information vs. disinformation, Mr. Metzger agreed with one of the panellists that there should not be overreaction to fake news which could lead to censorship. The challenge of misinformation should be used by citizens to re-engage with governments. The discussion was about transferring human nature in the digital space, Mr. Metzger concluded.

The Forum will hold another main session entitled empowering global cooperation on cybersecurity for sustainable development and peace today at 3 p.m. in Room XVII at the Palais des Nations.


For use of the information media; not an official record
M17/023E