Three things to do on democracy for the information age

I spent the last couple of days at the EU’s Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights. It was an interesting exchange of views, but I have to confess that by the end my horizons had been opened up so wide by stories of big data, big platforms and deep fakes that I was desperate to bring it back down to actions and basics. So when it came my turn to speak, in the last session, on the topic of “Free and fair elections and an informed and pluralistic democratic debate”. This is (roughly) what I said:

I want to start from something that Tanit Koch said, “We shouldn’t take human nature out of the equation”. I’d go even further. When we’re thinking about these huge issues such as disinformation, big platforms and big data, we should start from human nature and the human condition.

People are generally stressed out and time poor, I know I am. They don’t have time to read and process information in a structured way, and how we think about information and democracy has to take account of that fact. People are not “dessiccated calculating machines”. They are warm, illogical, emotional beings, and making democracy work better isn’t just a question of putting better information in and getting better information out.

The three practical things that I want to suggest are:

Show a story that is rooted in citizen voice. The age of unquestioned institutional trust is gone. The age of quiet acquiescence is going. People are not going to have trust in political information or narratives that they don’t have a chance to shape, and that don’t speak to their emotions and ambitions. That doesn’t mean oversimplifying, and it doesn’t mean avoiding the trade-offs, and it doesn’t mean referendums on every topic. It means showing your work from the start and involving people in shaping the choices that you make, demonstrating transparency and making the trade-offs clear, from before the policy is decided, to after the law is implemented.

First Vice President Timmermans said in the opening session – we have to distinguish myths from facts. As social media platforms are beginning to fragment, and the rise of deep fake makes information less and less reliable, that is going to become harder and harder.

Trust is going to be the most important commodity. This should be good news for institutions with strong brands and reputations but they can’t just rely on it. They have to show that they are trustworthy. It means taking on ideas like Marietje Schaake’s for information watermarks on government publications. That can work for some content.

At local and citizen level it will mean creating participation and engagement methods that can be trusted both by governments and by citizens – peer to peer as well as up and down.

When we’re doing this work, we have to mindfully build a democracy that looks like the internet, not like Facebook. We’re at a moment when democratic initiatives have to move from standalone projects that start and stop into systemic transformations that start and continue. We need to ensure that as new approaches to democracy are built into governing systems, they learn and support each other, and that local, national and European scale initiatives can connect up. That’s a task for European institutions, but also for local and national civil society.”

It was an interesting session to be part of – my favourite story was the Dutch organisation DROG who run the “Bad News Game” which trains young people to create viral fake news stories so they can recognise the markers of them later on. Great idea!

Thanks to DG Justice for inviting us.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.