Europe must keep human rights at the centre of its digital and democratic agendas. This was the key message from the two-part discussion in December on, “Digital transformation in the European way?’ – part of the continuing series ‘Together for the Future of Europe’.


Europe must be the digital norm-setter, and this is critical for the recovery of our democracy in the face of strong and persistent challenges from agents of disinformation. Speakers said that to achieve this, we need a higher degree of digital user literacy – Europe needs to enhance the citizens’ capacity for critical thinking, not least when it comes to the media we consume and the nudge effect of advertising.


Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance capitalism is undermining critical thinking and has become imperceptible to most citizens. We must, therefore, do more to defend our communities from malign efforts to nudge consumer, social and political behaviour through paid advertising and the mask of paid content. Speakers said transparency in advertising and in media ownership are essential to the construction of a more accountable public media space, and a more level playing field for democratic discourse.

Key to achieving these ambitions is the nurturing of new and emerging talent in digital management and modern communications. The old ways of communicating having been rapidly outpaced by well-funded social media specialists.

Panellists from a variety of backgrounds agreed that there must be a willingness to support a free press, ensuring citizens have the capacity to decide for themselves. They said, ‘the elephant in the room’ must be addressed – state media, overpowered by pro-government messaging. We need informed societies, free from the toxic messaging of aspiring authoritarians and corrupt leaders, those intent on maintaining power for personal and tribal gain.


A Public Space Reborn

A common, truly public space must be reborn, where a sense of opportunity must prevail for the discussion of ideas, without fear of exclusion, punishment or subtle penalty.

Expert speakers said AI must not subjugate human rights. AI should be at the service of our society, not it’s arbiter; and so, a new legal framework to foster innovation must remain flexible enough to assist the maturing of our democracy. We must find ways to develop a ‘values-based’ approach to Artificial Intelligence – asking what of the AI service or product, ‘What is it’s public good?’.


Democracy, EU-values and digital transformation

The first, of two panel discussion, titled, “Democracy, EU-values and digital transformation”, discussed the challenges of new digital ethics and human dignity; the role of data control and security and privacy; freedom and non-discrimination; the citizen’s participation in new digital political arena and representative democracy; and transparency – human involvement in digitised systems and accountability for the decisions guided by artificial intelligence systems.

The panel discussed if technology is really neutral; speakers asserting that the prejudices of the code developer are too easily translated into the usage of the tech product or service. However, it was generally agreed that we can create clear guiding principles for tech development.

The question was raised as to whether there is a conflict between democracy, mass surveillance and surveillance capitalism. In short, yes, there is a clear conflict, and it is necessary for policy makers to identify best practices to mitigate digitalisation risks. Otherwise, a data-driven society will lead to a new form of inequality – not least as surveillance capitalism imperceptibly alters public values and opinion forming is increasingly a subtle, cash-driven manipulation of our information supply.


Role of the European media in shaping digital convergence

The second panel discussion focused on the “Role of the European media in shaping digital convergence to benefit society and strengthen democracy”. Speakers discussed the mandate of a free and independent media as a watchdog of democracy; fact-checking and speaking without fear of government reprisal.

The panel gave examples of how a lack of advertising and ownership transparency in some European Member States, is leading to a dangerous, corrosive and anti-democratic concentration of media ownership. It was illustrated how the high concentration of digital intermediaries, in countries such as Hungary, leads to a copy / paste editorial line from the government press office across many influential media outlets.

The panel laid out how the concentration of media ownership, sometimes facilitated by national governments, is advancing a destructive business model in Europe, hindering genuine democratic debate.


Fake News Business Model

Adding to this dimension is the question of whether a twisting of the concept of the ‘freedom of the press’ has become a licence for a ‘Fake News’ business model, where AI is fundamentally shifting our concept of democracy through hyper-targeted messaging and news narratives funded by political actor acting for personal profit and power.

To counter this radicalisation of Europe’s media landscape, it was urged that more should be done at a European level to enhance Digital Health, perhaps making it a compulsory element of education for all citizens, and from an early age.