Last week I had the great privilege to host an event in collaboration with the Swedish embassy in Den Haag, Netherlands, on the highly urgent and somewhat controversial topic of ‘How Does Technology Transform Media & Public Opinion?” at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht.
Seven prolific speakers discussed current developments and challenges that come with the digitalisation of public communication and the rise of online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The program was based on ‘fireside talks’ between the invited experts from academia, governments, and media; emphasis was placed on three aspects:
- Technological Foundations and the Revolution of Communication – How Big Tech Changes the Public Sphere
The first section deals with how the rise of Internet technology first provided seemingly endless potentials to new modes of communication and access to the public for individuals and marginalised groups. News Media is no longer the sole source of mass-distributed information.
The mass distribution of Internet access enabled the rise of big tech companiessuch as Google and Facebook, that responded with constantly evolving services to the needs of a highly interconnected digital society. Leading Internet companies have turned into complex multi-purpose platforms that aim for binding users to their brands with a diversity of functions. They create spheres of increasing economic, cultural and political influence.
The implications for freedom of expression become apparent in transformations in media consumption and production. Traditional news media find themselves in a tough spotbetween ethical considerations, political missions, business goals, and an increasingly sceptical audience with access to countless alternative sources for information. Finally, there is the emerging trend to rely more increasingly on artificial intelligence in many web services which comes with an additional baggage of ethical and political questions.
- Potentials vs. Threats – Assessing the Pro’s and Con’s for Free Speech
On one hand, there are progressive social movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter, that make use of the open accessibility of the Web and highlight how marginalised groups apply freedom of expression in the digital public sphere. On the other, the Web is often a highly toxic place where racism, misogynism, trolling, hate speech, misinformation, and cyberbullying thrive; the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ and current forms of right-wing populism partly originated from or made intensive use of online platforms. Groups apply the technologies in order to organize their members, spread the message, contest mainstream politics and media, and thus framing issues from their world views.
Fake news and filter bubbles are often-cited downsides of the rise of social media and personalised web experiences. But is the situation that black and white? It’s a fact that trust in mainstream politics and media is undermined and questioned and the fact that political factions engage in trench warfare and hate speech in various forms is a widespread problem.
Today, when determining freedom of expression one has to consider that no one really lives a completely private life in the age social media and search engines.
The question is also what the role of businesses, journalists/media and governments is in all of this? There are different levels of ‘public’ communication that are affected by current tech trends and obviously all three play central roles the digital public sphere but the relationships between them are changing.
- Responsibilities and Remedies
The question of responsibility where different social, economic and political factors need to be considered. Tech is not going away; the Internet is not some separate place we got to but has become an integral part of our daily lives in various ways. What is the role of journalism in a data-driven age? How can companies be creative and innovative without losing sight of mid- to long-term consequences? How can they balance ‘what they can do’ with ‘what they should do’? What is the role of regulators and governments? Finally, what are the responsibilities of the user?