Taking Digitalization Seriously – Dialogues on Democracy in the Digital Age from EPPC 2017

When you attend a conference and hear the discussions about the dangers of ransomware, and three weeks later the WannaCry attacks keep experts and journalists busy, you know that you spent your time worthwhile. However, the interactive session by “ethical hackers” Vincent Toms and Victor Grevers of GDI Foundation, was just one of the many presentations, workshops and discussions at the European Public Policy Conference (EPPC) in Prague. Under the title “Democracy in the Digital Age”, future policy makers from Europe’s top educational institutions came together, alongside accomplished professionals, political leaders and scholars, to discuss future challenges, imminent threats and possible solutions to questions that will accompany us our entire (professional) life.

In the opening panel discussion that dealt with Digital Participation and the Media, Brian Loader of the Centre for Political Youth Culture and Communication defined the field of discussion by stressing that representative democracy, as we know it today, will have to change with technological progress, which can’t be defined as inherently good or bad. The role of democracy in this context is to shape technology and to create new ways of engagement for citizens. Elisa Lironi (European Citizen Action Service) subsequently gave an insight into current and possible ways of e-participation in the system of the European Union, calling attention to the European Citizen Initiative (ECI), an among the audience little known tool for citizen participation. However, more and stronger participatory elements, especially in the digital sphere, were suggested.

On the subject of the power of social media, Sebastian Popa of the Mannheim Center for European Social Research underlined the great opportunity of direct information to the public without the gatekeeper-filter the media provides. In this regard, the matter of authenticity and believability becomes critical and literacy must be created among communicators. However, the greater the engagement on social media is, the more vulnerable these channels become to trolls. Related to that, Paula Forteza of Jailbreak Paris talked about the imminent threat of fake news and problems in dealing with this problem, since objective criteria for fake news cannot simply be defined. The solution more likely lies in citizen literacy and empowerment, for which she introduced the OpenGovernment Toolbox, an “AppStore” of digital empowerment tools for policy makers with more than 1,000 different options. The importance of e- participation was further stressed, and it became clear, that politicians don’t control the message anymore and that current communication by political officials is in many cases characterized as condescending and patronizing. Among professionals, the importance of new ways of communication seems to be known, but the political willingness and appropriate resource allocation is currently still missing.

Digital matters are widely known to be highly important in the political sphere of the future. However, appropriate measures have failed to be implemented on a larger scale. The tools are available, there just needs to be the willingness to use them. This may at times not be pleasant and associated with a lot of conflict, but as far as the consensus at the conference goes, there is no turning back on technological progress. Moreover, these issues are closer than some of us assume. Cases like the WannaCry attack emphasize the desperate need to finally take digital matters seriously – in their bad as well as in their good facets.

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Max is in his second year of the master program at the Brandt School. He holds a Bachelors degree in communication science from the University of Hohenheim, specializing in political communication and public affairs. His interests include sustainable development, social progress, the influence of technology on societies and agile methods. He is currently writing his master thesis on the engagement of the private sector in sustainable development efforts.