Introducing this week's theme: Strasbourg's World Forum for Democracy 2017 looks at 'media, parties and populism'

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy 2017. This week we ask: what media, what political parties, what politicians do we need to re-connect with citizens? Is the problem fake news or fake democracy?

Georgios Kolliarakis
27 October 2017

The objective of the World Forum for Democracy 2017 is to review novel initiatives and approaches which can enhance democratic practices and help political parties and the media, but also other political actors, to re-connect to citizens, make informed choices and function optimally in 21st century democracy.

Our hosts invite us to consider "a growing disconnect between citizens and political elites and dramatic changes in the media ecosystem [that] are a challenge for democracy as we know it." After WW2, party pluralism was enshrined in democratic constitutions as the vehicle for political pluralism and a barrier against authoritarian regimes in Europe. Political parties represented mostly class interests, built political capital within their membership base, and communicated via like-minded media. Public service broadcasters were entrusted with ensuring multiple perspectives and the overall independence and diversity of media were seen as a guarantee of free and pluralist debate. However, something is happening with political parties and with the media.

Traditional political parties are losing their popular base, legitimacy and membership. They are criticised for lack of long-term vision and responsibility, the inability to engage younger generations, as well as a failure to offer convincing alternatives beyond mainstream paradigms. Opinion polls also show that political institutions are largely perceived as lacking integrity. Many are trying to reinvent themselves. Populist parties/leaders emerge to occupy the vacuum, exploiting the fear of globalisation and the increased insecurity perceived by many. New social movements also emerge. But are these movements opening up new democratic opportunities for those who feel excluded from politics?

Meanwhile, media concentration and restrictions on media freedom, while austerity measures weaken public service broadcasters and therefore limit the scope of independent reporting, are a concern in Europe and worldwide. Online media and social media through direct access to users are creating a totally new game. This vastly increases the opportunity for citizens’ democratic expression. At the same time, anonymity online and filter bubbles encourage political extremism and hate speech. Social media are all too often about speaking up, not speaking with.

In this period of transition from representative to post-representative democracy, how can we encourage online media and communities that foster pluralism and deliberation rather than extremism and polarisation? Can emerging online media evolve user-based rather than advertisement-based business models? To counter the wrong sorts of populism – and what are these? – should we look to a further decentralisation of governance to bring power closer to the people?

This week, in the run-up to the World Forum for Democracy 2017 in Strasbourg from November 8 - 10, openDemocracy explores the joint challenge posed by this 'disconnect' to our media and our democracies – encompassing many of our ongoing core concerns. Brexit provides a thought-provoking enough context for any reconsideration of the media and 'objectivity', as we discovered this week-end. But we properly begin with the global context of democracy at a crossroads.

Monday - dark money, deep data

There has been a sharp rise in nationalism and populism around the world. From Trump’s America to Brexit Britain, from Modi’s India to Xi’s China, from Erdogan’s Turkey to Duterte’s Philippines, national leaders are winning by promising to “take back control” and (re)assert their national power. In their latest book, Thomas Hale and David Held argue that these nationalist leaders are not isolated cases, but in part products of a systemic trend they call "self-reinforcing gridlock". Today David Held explains some of the global factors behind the resurgence of "authoritarianism" we are witnessing as it places democracy at risk and fractures the "politics of accommodation". Drawing on the many parallels between the 1930's and the 2010's, he asks if knowing this will help us choose a different route.

Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman bring us back to the liberal democracies of the west, but not with any sense of comfort. Here where a "complex normative paraphernalia has emerged " to describe the key responsibilities placed on media in the emergence and sustenance of democracy, instead we find complicity in consumer, rather than popular sovereignty; and failure to ensure free expression, political participation and democratic renewal. One direct consequence has been the sharp decline in the media's authority and legitimacy. Another, the profound "distance" betwen our parliamentary democracy and the lives of ordinary people. These have proved to be the necessary conditions for a series of 'political earthquakes'.

Those political earthquakes were the subject of a fascinating panel debate that took place this September in the UK's Byline festival. Hosted by Tim Dawson and Peter Jukes – to whom thanks for permission to publish this 45-minute podcast – four journalists share their pioneering investigations into the shadowy world of billionaires, using targeted social media ads to undermine our democracies in the US elections, the UK's Brexit referendum and beyond. Here, openDemocracy's Editor in Chief, Mary Fitzgerald introduces some of our investigative work, and fellow pannelists, Carole Cadwalladr, whose pathbreaking forays in The Observer first brought this world to public attention, Peter York and James Patrick.

We also take a closer look at political parties today, this time travelling to Moscow to explore, in the company of Yulia Galyamina, newly elected municipal councillor, the all-important interface for any new politics between the vertical and the horizontal. Yulia tells Dmitry Rebrov that "Party politics has exhausted itself."

Lastly, we begin a series of replies to the question: what does a democratic media look like today? According to Emeka Forbes, like the social media that powered the Catalan referendum.

Tuesday - human stories among the algorithms

When we first named a new feature on our digitaLiberties page, ‘Human stories among the algorithms’, openDemocracy was not fully aware of the extent to which this was an oxymoron.

But today, we continue the thread begun in Dark Money Deep Data, with a closer look at the unknown and silent rules that govern our perceptions, conversations, relationships and “where you stand in the world”.

Claudio Agosti patiently explains how the latter relate to the immense political power of the Personalized Algorithm. It is urgent that we “re-possess the data, own our gold, keep it under our control and thank only those who display openly how social media works, why they manipulate our perceptions, and how they do it.” Not only this, but since the fightback has been left to civic activism, he offers us one tangible way to begin, tools that “empower critical judgment” rather than extending the polarizing influence of the algorithm or its capacity for surveillance.

James Bridle also has a visionary project, “Citizen Ex”. Its starting point is the assignation of citizenship – the ‘right to have rights’ to which Hannah Arendt first alerted us – which he argues is coming under greatest stress online. ‘Jus algorithmi’ – the right of the algorithm – is taking over as our rights and protections are increasingly assigned not to our corporeal bodies but, moment by moment, to our digital selves. Citizen Ex affords us a new literacy about the accumulations of information that stand as proxies for us in our relationships to states, banks and corporations. Find out too about Estonia’s amazing “e-residency” programme.

We have the full version of the interview with Cathy O’Neil, former Wall St. analyst, who in the financial crash decided that she wanted to use her mathematic skills “to clarify not to lie”, and found herself ever since up against all those who would much rather not know the truth. She too patiently explains how ‘hiring algorithms’ can quickly become ridiculously discriminatory because every algorithm is “exactly as biased as the information you feed into it”; how Facebook is a propaganda machine that can swing elections, without even attempting to; and why the real problem is “that almost no algorithm has a human being who is responsible for it.”

Ben Hayes and Ravi Naik, ask why, under cover of Brexit, the UK is intent on leaving “entire industries dedicated to vetting, profiling and blacklisting private individuals”, especially in the financial sector, exempt from the reach of the EU laws currently being transferred over that govern the way states and corporations can collect and use information about us. Why are they protecting the likes of World-Check? Meanwhile, Nadim Nashif and Marwa Fatafta fill us in on the predictive policing system – another algorithm – developed by Israeli intelligence, that analyzes social media posts to identify Palestinian “suspects.”

But there is cheering news from Timothy Karr and the US-based Strategy for Free Press, where the campaign for net neutrality has grasped that an open internet is as fundamental to functioning democracies as protecting free speech rights. They have been working out how best to create an international, popular movement for internet freedom. It involves one of our favourite things on openDemocracy – unlikely bedfellows.

Wednesday - responding to migration in an aggrieved age

The populism we witness in Europe today does not tend to place the poverty being reinforced by austerity alongside refugee and migrant worker movements, curbing xenophobia and racism. Nor does the establishment response to it open the doors to admit the entirety of the population into the political mainstream, setting an agenda in which collaboration and cooperation across borders can re-emerge as the best way to live our lives, in the hope of a better future in the twenty-first century.

On the contrary, as the Panel 2 WFD2017 discussion on November 9 frames its question, “In recent years, populist and right-wing discourse has taken on an increasingly aggressive anti-refugee and anti-immigrant dimension, imposing this subject rather successfully on the political agenda in European countries. As a consequence, excessively restrictive measures adopted in many European countries are increasingly jeopardising fundamental values of our societies and the human rights of migrants and refugees. What approaches and strategies can be drawn upon to develop a counter-narrative to this anti-immigrant rhetoric?

How, they go on to ask, can the reactions of politicians, civic leaders and media professionals, be reconfigured and recombined to build more effective policies and better and more inclusive democracies? Tomáš Jungwirth kicks off our ‘migration debate’ today, by warning a civil society under increasing pressure “never to forget politics” – never to become “substantially detached from the prevailing public discourse” and thereby ”excluded from political decision-making.” In his view, the notion of “no borders” can have no conceivable traction if “not even the most progressive of European politicians” will contemplate such an approach.

But others, often activists, ask what happens to the transformative agendas of NGOs when they become involved in the delivery of services, or otherwise dependent on governments who require them to “stick to their knitting” and avoid playing politics. Indeed, more broadly, what is the purpose or role of NGO’s: to fill in the gap of the receding state and to provide a residual safety net to vulnerable members of society, or to challenge and transform the structures that perpetuate poverty, inequality, and social exclusion? (see for example, Armine Ishkanian here).

Susi Meret and Sergio Goffredo give us an overview of a Europe in which migrant activism and solidarity with migrants are criminalised and made a scapegoat for failed EU migration politics. Thus, NGO’s operating in the Mediterranean to save lives have been accused of “acting as a ‘taxi service to Europe’ and facilitating smugglers’ activities.” These accusations coincide with the increasingly violent enforcement of new laws such as Italy’s new immigration bill, and yet another downward spiral in civility.

Anna Triandafyllidou poses a key question in all this: what forces actually most influence European policy making decisions in the field? In the case of the ‘emergency relocation quotas’, it is an interesting combination of ideas from evidence-based research circulated by civil society, which might never have seen the light of day had it not been for an emergency, crucially combined with the nod from the “German political leadership… the moment was ripe and the political will was there.” However, the adverse reaction of the Central Eastern European member states brings this tale to a cautionary end.

So how can hearts and minds be changed on the scale required? Teresa Buczkowska says that we have to break the cycle and start again. And in this, it is time for us to grasp the fact that “facts don’t matter.” For all the talk of “fake news’ and “populist narratives”, it is not facts per se that are going to win the “ongoing war” to establish who are the goodies and who are the baddies, but subjective counter-narratives that can address our hopes, fears and self-hatreds. Milena Santerini is more sanguine about the virtues of fact-checking but also aware that the mere availability of knowledge will not counter the conspiracy cravings of today’s cultures. For her too, skill in interpretation is key, and what must accompany facts is “serious debate that grapples with issues… that advocates critical and divergent thinking, that inspires discernment and discrimination”.

Today we close with another overview of forces determining both the facts and the fear on the ground far more than we might like to think. In this case we are talking about the “European security-industrial complex” and what Reinhard Kreissl can tell us about the problems of techno-solutionism when they are combined with a failure to analyse the threat. Instead: “Threat levels have to be kept high to maintain the role of the security professionals and boost further investment in security technology.” Moreover, “To keep this business model alive, the convenient security problems have to be well advertised.” For Kreissl, when it comes to migrants and citizens alike, a critical choice will be made between “either a change of the root cause conditions or a broadening of the surveillant gaze.” He also agrees with Milena, “Offering slots of less than 90 seconds to explain world events as breaking news, runs counter to any thorough deliberation of contemporary security problems.”

Thursday - new journalism, democratic media

On Thursday we return to the challenge of the thorough deliberation of contemporary problems that can change hearts and minds, by taking a look at new media and new approaches to the media. Given that, “Mother Jones recently reported that in 2015 there were 40% fewer journalists working in newsrooms in the US than in 2007”, it’s a surprisingly hopeful section of this journey. 

Keren Flavell, founder of Poll Town, believes that “professional news media could play a larger, and more active role in the ecosystem of representative democracy, and get paid for it.” How? By helping governments and citizens to access The Sweet Spot in which “people are brought together, to openly share opinions and grow awareness of opposing viewpoints and considerations.” (Those attending WFD2017 will have their chance to “exercise their civic muscle” on “an issue of global importance” in the Participants’ Assembly on November 9, 14.30 – 18.00 in the Council of Europe Hemicycle.)

Jonathan Heawood, CEO of Impress, the independent monitor for the UK press, shares Keren’s distaste for the “creepy” aspects of the social media listening tools that amplify the “most outspoken”. But he sees a range of abuses that could threaten this promising new public space at birth: from fake news, junk science and hate speech, to the unwitting pawns we become in what he calls the “global game of thrones” we explored in our Monday podcast. As voters, citizens and individuals we need and deserve a new regulatory settlement to protect our public space. And, he says, the tide is turning.

For Alon Aviram and Adam Cantwell-Corn, founders of BristolCable, the UK’s only citywide media cooperative, it is important to recognize what went wrong if you want to restore trust and viability to the media. “Impartiality in journalism has always been a problematic concept” and now it is the “fallout from the closeness between press and politics” that “has presented a political and commercial opportunity for new media publishers to fill.” Their dynamic democratic co-op model with “ordinary folk the proprietors” is their answer to the question: how can we “create a media which tackles the issues of representation while holding power to account?”

For Peggy Holman too, co-founder and director of Journalism That Matters, the starting point is legacy journalism’s disappearing audiences in the United States. Here too, it is community-centred approaches that convince her of journalism’s “tremendous potential for positive societal change”, and it is adding “to support communities to thrive” to the classic definition of journalism that alone will renew its purpose. This involves a move from detached to engaged which will give many journalists of the old school pause for thought, and the reason is a recognition that “people need experiences, connections and relationships, not just information.”  In short, dialogue.

Sarah Ven Gelder, the YES! columnist, tells us about the PeoplesHub initiative which arose out of her 12,000-mile journey around America in pursuit of uplifting stories for The Revolution Where You Live. She believes that deep change happens most powerfully when local groups can learn from each other. What she wants to make happen next is that dialogue between communities.

Perhaps the most moving optimism you will find on this front page is Joseph Daher’s detailed account of the rise and fall of the democratic media since Syria’s uprising in 2011. As we journey from the years of censorship to the “crony capitalist media tycoons” who tried their hand at running Assad’s mass rallies and public relations campaigns, and plot the first stirrings of the website promoting women’s and children’s rights, the blogger imprisoned for five years accused of spying for a foreign country because she wrote poems about Palestinian suffering, or the pro-regime critics who the author thinks show some promise of a “a more open culture” – we begin to see the point of this loving detail. Unlike in the unrecorded 70’s and the 80’s, Joseph says, this time thanks to “democratic media”, the memories remain as a foundation for future resistance.

Friday - bridging the divides?

Last Sunday we took a look at the way the media has served the British people in the Brexit process, and more particularly what a middle class father and son thought they could do to compensate for the inadequacies of the pro-remain media as they saw them. They were calling for a better debate, as was Tom Mills, but this time directed at the BBC for not being able to facilitate ‘a free, open and broad debate about the issues confronting the country’, so skewed is its worldview towards an élite that is also in considerable disarray.

On Monday, openDemocracy’s Adam Ramsay and Peter Geoghan published another finding from their investigation into Brexit funding, which revealed that a deluge of accusations of the BBC for pro-remain bias, repeated uncritically by many newspapers, came from and were ultimately funded by one source.

Under these for the most part incalculable, yet generally polarizing conditions, we ask what it is in our societies that can bridge the divides? Today we return to the Brexit chasm, but this time to see how ‘ordinary British people’ fare, compared to their political and media counterparts, in an exercise in sortition provided with expertise and the all too rare opportunity to directly engage with and listen to your fellow citizens across the divide. Oliver Norgrove is clearly taken with the ‘maturity’ of those involved quite apart from the outcome – something one doesn’t often hear said of either of the other institutions.

Why aren’t there more opportunities for us citizens to talk and really listen to each other? Answering this question at the end of this week, we can’t escape the sense of exacerbated polarization and division on all sides and at all levels, whether it is the resurgence of "authoritarianism" that fractures the "politics of accommodation" described by David Held on Monday; the fearmongering implicit in Reinhard Kreissl’s techno-solutionism; the “global game of thrones” alongside “fake news”, “junk science” and “hate speech” that Jonathan Heawood lists as threats to our new online public sphere; or Claudio Agosti’s troubling account of the isolating effect of the prioritizing Personalized Algorithm.

We look in more detail at hate speech today, beginning with Cherian George’s advice to journalists in the recently-published Ethical Journalism Network Report. Covering a great deal of difficult ground that is always wary of censorship and bias, George points out that “hate speech is a constantly evolving phenomenon”. So it is good to encounter new inroads into its complexities, and new approaches to dealing with it, such as Brian Martin’s in-depth argument for applying the principles of nonviolent resistance to this online human scourge. Today also, we look at Dani de Torres’ long-term exploration of social change which is the Anti-Rumours Strategy of the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities programme, “challenging the negative narratives around diversity”; explore the pros and cons of banning “anti-systemic parties” under the guidance of Fernando Casal Bértoa and Angela Bourne; and with John Blewitt track the ways that fake news in the Anglosphere has undermined the freedom of it citizens for over two hundred years, only recently entering its most sinister stage.

It sometimes feels as if we are locked into a race between civility and incivility, love and fear, for which only one side has declared, and that the clock is ticking. But the good news this week has been a remarkable agreement by people coming from different fields and different places about the ingredients for an emerging fightback.

The Wikimedia family have been busy working out their future till 2030, and like many of this week's contributors, as reported here by Anne Kierkegaard seem to be agreeing on the need to “focus our efforts on the knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege”, to, “welcome people from every background to build strong and diverse communities” in order to “break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.” Like Peggy Holman, who offered us her useful distinction between polarizing debate and dialogue, the Wikimedia strategy is in pursuit of ‘open and democratic dialogue’.

Holman cites one manifesto of engaged journalism as saying,We offer our own vulnerability and are willing to step out first into difficult conversations and situations” and dialogue between people, different people and diverse communities, that mysterious process that can change minds if it is predicated on a minimum of mutual vulnerability – is a skill and a cultural standard mentioned again and again as something that our societies need to rediscover, if we seek to bridge the distance between democracy and ordinary lives. Crucially, we are back to the terrain of Tim Karr's "unlikely bedfellows".

Summing up many of the thoughts this week on how to respond to the “wearily familiar” and unfounded “charge sheet against immigrants”, Philippe Legrain agrees that “personal interaction makes a huge difference”. He too urges the movement beyond facts to “compelling human stories” and “an attempt to reach out to those with different values and to speak their language.”

But we must go further, “Persuading people on migration is not just about narrative and framing. It also has to be about policies. Politicians need to put forward bold solutions to the many problems... that are often blamed on immigrants.” Again, this is not the first time that we have heard this message. On Monday, it is Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman who point unflinchingly to fake democracy as the root of our travails, “A democratic facade that promises much but delivers little.” For Yulia Galyamina, the “party politics that has exhausted itself” is a con. For Cathy O’Neil on Tuesday, the fight against Silicon Valley is over whether “technology is better than and will replace politics”: she wants accountability, to us, to win out. For BristolCable, too, power must be held to account.

So perhaps this week’s most provocative bridge over a divide is Jimmy Tidey’s rejection of Google’s fate in China, as “a backward-looking authoritarian state rejecting innovation and strangling freedom of expression.” Tidey argues that it is at least unclear whether China was right to kick Google out. But moreover, China has many lessons to teach us about managing a digital democracy in the system of surveillance they are putting in its place, including deliberative democracy to counter the polarizing effect of the filter bubble. This is a subject discussed in some detail in an important book for our debate that is causing a stir, Rachel Botsman’s “Who can you trust? How technology brought us together – and why it could drive us apart ” (Penguin, Random House, 2017). Tidey’s own conclusion however, is that the similar management problems the west and China face might bridge some unnecessary divides.

It all depends on whom you can trust, which brings us finally, to Philippe Marlière’s fascinating account of one man’s populism – the ‘left-wing populism’ professed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the rise of France Insoumise (Unbowed France, FI). Populism is the World Forum’s overarching theme in 2017, and we very much hope that our special week will help you approach this complicated man with new eyes and many ideas. Philippe Legrain contends today that patriotism is far too persuasive an argument to leave to reactionary nationalists and xenophobes. Mélenchon seems to have taken similar advice. Whether the results are more likely to militate towards an enabling unity or a debilitating division, we leave you to assess, and look forward to further discussions in Strasbourg.

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