Over the course of three panel discussions at the April 21st event, Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm, experts from the Cyber Policy Center and other areas of academia and industry discussed the many challenges posed by disinformation, along with the methods and platforms propelling disinformation and hate. The event, co-hosted by the Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation featured a keynote by President Barack Obama and discussions that delved deeper into the complicated and concerning digital issues threatening our democratic systems and civil societies.
Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory led the first panel, THE TRUST PROBLEM: What is the role of the U.S. government in facilitating consensus and reducing polarization at home? The panel included Ben Ginsberg, Larry Diamond, Nicole Wong and Rashad Robinson with discussions addressing the rise of the influencer and how media and news have moved from dissemination by big networks, to individual influencers and personalities. Panelists also addressed the dynamic of the algorithm and how algorithms have come to change and curate how we consume and see news. With both influencers and algorithms playing a role in how disinformation spreads, Larry Diamond of the Cyber Policy Center emphasized the additional challenge of how fast and far it goes, and how company profits benefit as a result. "The problem is not just disinformation it’s the propulsion of it in a deliberate way as part of profit logic," Diamond said.
Finally the panelists discussed the the concept of social media (particularly Twitter) as public square. The public square idea is problematic and a poor analogy given not everyone has equal access to the square itself, said Rashad Robinson of Color of Change. "It’s not that rich people have control over the public square and shouldn’t. It’s that rich people own the public square...And that doesn't mean it's public."
Marietje Schaake international policy director of the Cyber Policy Center moderated the second panel DESIGNING FOR DEMOCRATIC DISCOURSE: What is the role for media and tech companies to ensure quality, access, and participation? Speakers Chris Best, Maria Ressa, (joining by phone after not being authorized to travel by the Filipino government) Peter Hamby and Safiya Noble addressed the role and responsibility of social media and tech companies in creating spaces with equal access. Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize winner and frequent target of the Duterte government, spoke of her research on how tech platforms have created behavior that has made democracy "not just weaker but...in many instances around the world, destroyed it." That destruction, said Ressa had a lot to do with what type of information spreads online. "Lies, laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts,” she said, pointing to a 2018 study. Safiya Noble emphasized the need for values to be the driving question when it comes to conversations about democracy. Are those values rooted in human rights and civil rights or are they anchored in white supremacy, sexism and authoritarianism? If we don’t address the right values, Noble said, we instead “foreclose the opportunity for everyone to participate in the experiment of a multiracial democracy.”
Moderator Eileen Donahoe, former Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Genev and current executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator led the final panel, THE THREAT OF DIGITAL AUTHORITARIANISM: What are the most effective ways to defend open democratic systems in a global digitized world? Panelists included speakers Ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, Ben Rhodes, Halimah Delaine Prado, Peter Pomerantsev and Shanthi Kalathil. Ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, underlined that we are at a critical juncture. "What can we do to really focus on making sure democracy is not something we take for granted; something we tell our children that was once a beautiful thing?" Her answer focused on three pillars, that of allyship of countries, collaboartion with tech industry and finally, making sure citizens are empowered to make decisions and drive more "democratic, secure, participatory digital future."