Contemporary history of Europe

Democracy, Freedom and Truth at a Time of Digital Disruption: An equation with three unknowns?

The pattern of a knowledge-based society relies to a large extent on digital technologies and intangible outputs and generate considerable transnational financial flows and gains. These technologies also play a key role in providing free access to data and information, encouraging citizen participation in public decision-making, fostering transparency and scrutiny of government action and mobilising new players capable of identifying alternative means of civic and political participation worldwide. At the same time, the increasingly impact of online platforms in manipulating transnational public debates, and the surge in extremist groups using the digital ecosystem to incite hatred, hostility and violence are a warning sign that these modes of communication may be having an adverse effect on democracy and that the boundary between fact and fiction is not as clear as we may like to think. The US presidential election campaign and the Brexit referendum (2016), the theories about COVID-19 (that have flooded the web since 2019), the terrorist attack against French teacher Samuel Paty (16 October 2020) all highlight these trends. When the majority of the world’s citizens are using online media as their main source of information, the proliferation of disinformation and the related threat of radicalism and extremism have led to a growing awareness of these issues at international- and European Union level. What can be done to tackle the situation? How should the democratic states with new forms of private power in the algorithmic society? Where should the line be drawn between freedom of expression and media pluralism on the one hand, and intrusion and censorship of dissenting opinions on the other? How should information be defended as a fundamental right? Is there a moral or ethical code when it comes to information? How can be created an environment that is conducive to inclusive, pluralistic public debate? How to equip citizens to develop a critical approach and to take informed decisions? How to balance innovation with the need to ensure transparency and fairness? Could we be witnessing a situation in which algorithms are “dissolving” democracy? Drawing on the archives of the international and European multilateral organisations (UN/UNESCO, Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union) and several public and private stakeholders worldwide, this chapter proposes: a) to take stock of the issues and challenges raised by the proliferation of fake news, social media and algorithms, and their impact on freedom and democracy; b) to review the regulatory provisions implemented in this area at European and international level; and c) to identify future prospects.

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