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Public Discussion on “Democracy in the Digital Age”

The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) partnered with Overseas Vote Foundation and the American International Club of Geneva to organise a Public Discussion on “Democracy in the Digital Age” on October 29. The discussion was moderated by Mr Adam Koniuszewski, Executive-in-Residence, part of the Global Fellowship Initiative at the GCSP and was hosted by the Global Risk and Resilience Cluster led by Dr Jean-Marc Rickli in the Emerging Security Challenges Programme.

In his opening remarks, Mr Adam Koniuszewski described how the term “Fake news” became the Time magazine 2017 word of the year and is now considered to represent one of the greatest threats to democracy around the world. According to Mr Koniuszewski, “in the last two years, systematic and organised misinformation campaigns often linked to foreign governments have emerged, propelled by social media platforms that filter content and polarise the debate by promoting sensationalism and emotional reactions at the expense of truthfulness.”

Mr Adam Koniuszewski gave the example of how President Trump’s administration coined the term “alternative facts” to describe unfavourable news and mentioned that the most popular stories during the 2016 U.S. election turned out to be fake. He described how we are notoriously bad at detecting what is fake or paid content from what is legitimate and authentic. “If artificial intelligence is better than we are at assessing the value of information, what does this mean for the future of democracy?”.

The first panellist was Dr Imai Jen-La Plante who is currently the Chief Innovation Officer at Berney Associés and also works at Presence Switzerland, a unit of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she uses web-based technology to monitor the image of Switzerland abroad. Dr Jen-La PLante presented a provocative perspective on the influence of big data and algorithms with their implications for democracy. She described how more and more companies are hungry for data and how artificial intelligence has infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives.

According to Dr Jen-La Plante, businesses and governments collect and analyse data through social media which gives them the power to influence us. “As consumers, our brains have become the battleground. We are using a free service, and in exchange the platforms are occupying our brains. The power of these platforms, the scales and data and insights they have from our data gives them tremendous influence”. Dr Jen-La Plante described how Cambridge Analytica analysed data from millions of users during the 2016 US election campaign. For Dr Jen La-Plante, there is no easy answer to counter the influence that data has on our lives but suggested three answers to this: 1. Counter Artificial Intelligence with Artificial Intelligence, 2. Put importance back on trust rather than on advertising, 3. Opting out of social media.

The second panellist, Mr John Bunzl, founder of the International Simultaneous Policy Organisation, emphasised the need for global cooperation in order to move forward. According to Mr Bunzl, the reason why countries are not achieving any progress on urgent issues like climate change is that nations must keep their economies internationally competitive in today’s global marketplace. For example, in the case of climate change, if a nation moves first its companies in its country will suffer higher costs. Hence, governments do not want to move first and progress is glacially slow. The need to keep their economies internationally competitive also confines governments of whatever party to a narrow range of neoliberal policies, so giving rise to what he calls “pseudo-democracy”. This, Bunzl argues, is why people are losing faith in democracy.

How can digital technology be leveraged to overcome these problems? Mr Bunzl developed the Simultaneous Policy (Simpol) campaign. Simpol offers citizens a way to use their right to vote to drive governments towards cooperating on the most serious global challenges. The aim is to encourage nations to implement measures simultaneously so that everyone wins. By joining the campaign, citizens inform their political representatives that they "will be giving strong voting preference at national elections to politicians or parties that have pledged to implement Simpol alongside other governments, to the probable exclusion of those who choose not to sign". Politicians who sign enhance their chances of gaining the votes of Simpol's supporters while those who don't, risk losing those votes, and potentially their seats, to politicians who signed instead. Already, Members of Parliament in a number of countries from across the political spectrum have signed the Pledge as can be seen at http://www.simpol.org/index.php?id=90

According to Mr Bunzl, this political power will give citizens a strong influence over the policy content of Simpol. Should Simpol gain the support of democratic governments, non-democratic nations would be invited to participate. If global support becomes sufficient and a global negotiation to determine the precise measures is successful, the first Simultaneous Policy can be implemented. Subsequent Simultaneous Policies would follow. In summary, Simpol is "Agreement by nations, driven by citizens".

In closing remarks, Overseas Vote Foundation Advisor Roland Crim noted the prescience of philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, who predicted over 70 years ago that the earth would one day “clothe itself with a brain. With 7.2 billion connecting devices and as many inhabitants, de Chardin’s ‘World Brain 1.0’ is now upon us. The present debate concerns what software we should load onto this infrastructure.” Post-conference, he sounded a cautionary note: “Maintaining visibility of forces having a powerful but unseen influence on our decisions, particularly voting decisions, is vital. GDPR is a start. Societies have coexisted with fake news for millennia, what’s new is its virulent impairment of our ability to build the consensus which legitimizes democratic governance. Sensitizing adults is problematic because most adults, most voters are convinced they are sophisticated information consumers. And training children to defend against it may take a generation, while fake news sources reinvent daily. ”