“Today we have much more information than ever before. It is time we became a bit wiser,” says Erika Widegren, Re-Imagine Europa, in the interview conducted by Anna Zagórna
Anna Zagórna: The digital era has radically changed the public space. Those, who control, have access to the most effective controlling tools. Is democracy in danger?
Erika Widegren*: Our democratic system is indeed in danger, but that is not only the problem of Europe. The same tendency can be seen in democratic systems all over the world. The fact that we see similar social movements happening in the United States, Brazil and Europe is not a coincidence.
Why is this happening?
Because we have entered the digital era. However, digital technologies also provide a lot of opportunities for the development of public discourse. With waves of increasing citizens’ participation, societies are more engaged in public matters, the Arab Spring being one of the examples.
However, it is still difficult to say if digital technology will help democracy or challenge it. It will all depend on us and on whether we will succeed in implementing regulations that will truly support our values.
At the European Internet Forum held in December you said that manipulating social media poses a huge threat to democracy. How to stop it? Is it even possible? And who is more responsible for that – politicians or society?
These are million-dollar questions and everyone is looking for good answers. The Brexit referendum and the American elections have shown to what extent new technologies are used to manipulate public opinion. This got global attention after Carole Cadwalladr from “The Guardian” started publishing articles about Cambridge Analytica, and revealing connections between manipulation in social media and the election process during Brexit and in USA. Microtargeting and PSYOPs [Editor’s note: PSYOPs – psychological operations] has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. So, we need to think how to regulate it. In Europe we have already started with some important measures to protect citizens, like GDPR. Our American friends are much more vulnerable to that issue.
Americans envy our GDPR?
Yes. At the beginning of this year I was in California and I heard several experts suggestion Europe should do more, commending the European Commission as the most sophisticated regulatory body in the world. In Brussels, where I live, I seldom hear anyone using such laudatory words.
We should try to determine what influence a technology may have on people and not how we can change people to make them adapt to a technology.
Of course, much more has to be done to stop possible manipulations. We simply must face the digital revolution; the third big communication revolution has already begun. It will take some time, we have no silver bullet. We all have to figure out how to organize our society and what principles to follow in order to be sure that we will be able to cope with digital technologies.
At what level should actions be taken to save European democracy from manipulation? At the European level or at the level of each individual country?
At both. The European Union should concentrate on coordination of actions of the states so that each country could adopt solutions making sense in its own system.
However, we have to remember that we live in a global world where not only the United States but also China plays a big role, the latter creating its own internet system. And that is why Europe must be stronger. I am Swedish. There are only nine million people in my country, so we would not be capable of doing anything on the internet that would prove effective on a global scale. Europe could do that. It has over 500 million inhabitants.
We also have to face global technology tycoons.
When some European countries such as Germany or Sweden asked the Big Four [Editor’s note: so-called GAFA, i.e. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple] to adapt their operating model to the threats or challenges felt on a national level, the answer was “No”.
Yet, Europe is too important for those companies to neglect. This is evident when you look at the amount of money that GAFA spend on lobbying in Brussels. In the past ten years this amount has increased exponentially. The eyes of the United States and China are on us. A great advantage we have as Europe is that we have a model that requires compromise and sharing of experience in twenty-eight different countries. The European process is not the fastest but it is rigorous, based on evidence, best-practice and compromise.
There has been a discussion on whether European guidelines regarding ethical artificial intelligence are sufficient. What should be strengthened?
Artificial intelligence is one of those technologies that wil completely change the way we act. The guidelines presented by the European Union are very robust. The High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (HLEG AI) has done an excellent job, although there is still more to be done.
I like the European approach according to which ethics and trust form the basis for development of artificial intelligence. GDPR has already changed the way Europe handles artificial intelligence. The EU allows national governments to define their own artificial intelligence development strategies by coordinating them at the European level. With that, we can learn from each other and try to come up with the best system of dealing with new technologies because, let us not forget, they also have their dark and even terrifying side.
European countries are at different stages of adoption and development of new technologies. Is it a serious obstacle for digital development of the European Union?
I believe that countries are different not only because of their level of digitalization. I do not think that we should try to equalize anything at this point. We should determine what influence a technology may have on people and not how we can change people to make them adapt to the technology.
During one of the discussions at this year’s EFNI conference, there was the discussion on the responsibility of technology versus that of humans. It is true that the internet is a mirror of humanity. It is not the technology that decides to manipulate voters or use AI for personal benefits. However, we need to understand how these technologies, left unregulated, can lead to catastrophic consequences precisely because human desires and weaknesses. An example being the financial crisis that was made possible because of the digital infrastructure that allowed global financial transactions within nano-seconds; to some extent, it made it impossible for national regulators to control the system that had now been made global.
Michał Kosiński [Editor’s note: an academic at Stanford University, recognized as the author of systems used by Cambridge Analytica to manipulate the presidential campaign in USA] published a book in which he tried to answer the question “What does Google know about us?”. In it he delves into the questions we ask google when we think nobody is looking, when we are ourselves, and it is quite telling… Of course, the internet has been the bearer of many wonderful things, like positive initiatives, social campaigns, but we need to be aware that there is also a dark side. Unless restricted by regulation, technology will be used not only for good things but bad things as well. Unfortunately, that is our human nature.
We should therefore ask one question: how can we regulate our systems to reduce the number of bad things that may happen to minimum? We have been doing that in the real world; we have to start doing that in the virtual world.
In order to make it possible for each of us to participate in decision-making we also need democratic media. How to make Europeans aware of that and how to make them act?
About ten years ago I travelled around Europe. I talked to editors in chief of leading newspapers and magazines and asked them how many articles about Europe they published every day. At the time, it was usually one or two stories, either about a scandal or about something ridiculous, for example about EU’s decision on how big tomatoes should be. What was more, such texts were published in the middle of the paper, never on the covers or on the pages to which the readers turn most often.
We have to be very careful in our fight for democracy and be aware of what is more important to citizens: comfort or rights. Maybe we will be less comfortable. Maybe we will need two more mouse-clicks to get what we want, but at least artificial intelligence will not make decisions for us
Today, Europe is front-page news most days. During this year’s European Parliament election campaign the media was not only following the national bedates but also the broader European discussions. We are witnessing the birth of a real European civil society. Today every European has an opinion about Europe; It is not always positive but the awareness in itself is an importnat change.
What will the future of Europe look like in the digital era?
I run the organization called Re-Imagine Europa, which, as the name suggests is pro-European. We work to ensure that Europe remains a leading economic power in the 21st century able to safeguard a prosperous future of peace, freedom and social justice for all its citizens. Europe may protect our values and the way we see the world, which is different from the one Americans or Chinese have. As Europeans, we have certain unique values for which we have been fighting for centuries, such as the right to public education or the right to basic healthcare. Unless Europe is strong enough to truly protect this way of life, our social capitalism will be threatened. Digitalization will have a huge impact on that; for me this change is existential. Everything will change. Our fiscal systems, legal systems, the way we act…
…yes, for sure. We have already started caring about the media ecosystem.
When I started working in politics, not much could be done because of the status quo of the idea of what the world should look like and how governments should be run. Economic policy was more or less the same throughout the whole European Union. Today it is not the case anymore. We are aware of a great opportunity to make an impact on the world. The time has come to define what will happen in the next century. So be active, get involved in debates and stay aware that you are helping us to build the Europe of the future.
What advice would you give to European politicians? What should be improved and what should be preserved in the digital era?
I am very pleased to see that digital technology has become such an important matter for the new European Commission and its Vice President Margrethe Vestager, who has a very impressive digital portfolio. Our number one advice is that digitalization must become one of the priorities because it will be defining everything else we do.
Christiane Woopen, Chair of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies; Exec. Director of the Center for Ethics, Rights, Economics, and Social Sciences of Health (CERES), University of Cologne, , reminded us we are today in a world of algorithmic, individualized, psychological mass manipulation, and this is a deep threat to democracy. In today’s world loss of freedom and rights will not come in the form of a coup d’état buy slowly in the guise of more comfort and services.
Today we have more information than ever before, we are “smarter” than ever before investing more money in research and education every year. It is time we became a bit wiser.
*Erika Widegren – Chief Executive Office of Re-Imagine Europa (RIE).
Together with Professor Manuel Castells, she is leading the RIE Task Force on “Democracy in a Digital Society” bringing together over one hundred experts from academia, policy, media, civil society and industry to develop a blueprint of what a European model for the digital society could look like.
Erika has been working in the field of understanding how digital technologies are impacting policy and public discourse for over a decade, has written and contributed to numerous articles and reports and is a frequent speaker and moderator at European conferences on these topics.
**Re-Imagine Europa – The first European incubator for new political ideas. Founded by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 2016 with the aim to redefine how long-term policy and vision is developed using new technologies to foster a dynamic public discourse, collective intelligence and realistic solutions for the benefit of a stronger, fairer and more competitive Europe.
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