On April 4-5, 2019 the 7th edition of Personal Democracy Forum was organized in Gdańsk, Poland, followed by the third Festival of Civic Tech for Democracy which was organized on April 6. The idea of the event is to gather activists from the region of Central-Eastern Europe and beyond to discuss the proposals on how to boost civic engagement and transparency in political and social life by using new technologies. Here is our selective coverage of the most (in our opinion) important presentations delivered during the first day of this international conference. Our blog was represented by Maria Moroniak and Emil Wojtaluk.
This year’s edition was exceptional also due to the recent tragic event connected with the death of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of the City of Gdańsk who supported the idea of PDF from the very beginning. The conference opened with a video of his previous speeches during Personal Democracy Forum. His recently elected successor, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz delivered a touching speech commemorating his legacy. The audience paid well deserved respect to Mr. Adamowicz by giving him a minute of silence. Mayor Dulkiewicz said that after what happened we became more united and careful of each other – stating that this is our mission to keep that state of affairs, it was also based on trust so we should trust each other more. The current Mayor ended her speech with a praise to the idea of bringing activists from so many countries to discuss the threats and solutions on how to protect democracy saying:
I’m not naive, it cannot last forever but if we can change one person this is a already a success.
Broken Feedback Circle
Martin Tisné of Luminate talked about the unintended consequences of using social media for advocating democracy. The panel he was a part of was about the broken feedback circle that is described as missing the community, missing the society we want to involve with. He presented his experiences of using technology in anti-corruption campaign in the Balkans, but at the same time, despite of significant media attention the money in this project was not invested so significantly. The result of that was a decrease of trust in the state government. Tisné stated that we did not put enough of our attention in the recent years on malevolent actors who publish a lot of disinformation content in social media. How to put trust in government? First of all, we should focus on online political advertising by pushing for more transparency on who is the target group or who owns that particular company. Our rights should not be discriminated on the basis of data. To sum up this part, a government can use technologies against people so that we should observe if the government is reflecting but not doing it from the position of strength. He ended up his speech saying that the data should be open but only if used mindfully, we should always look ahead thinking about consequences of such actions.
Hostile Narratives and Disinformation
Massimo Flore from the European Commission expressed his personal thoughts on combating hate speech and disinformation, although it was clearly stated that what he say represents only his own personal opinions and this is not an official position of the European Commission on the topic. He presented a very interesting comparison of the strategies for disinformation used in the ancient Rome and how much they are akin to what we observe nowadays before the upcoming European Parliament elections. As it was in the ancient times the opponents used emotionally charged messages to blame each other for all the bad things happening in the world. Those messages were full of anger and fear of something, because it is always the fear that drives people to blame each other and disseminate false information. Hostile narratives were described by Mr. Flore as a collection of false and untrue information that all share the same structure, which is as follows:
1) Fake content – that starves for attention;
2) Problematic content – which stands for misleading/malicious content;
3) Factual information – it is vital if you want to create good false news, then you should give more credibility to it by giving a little bit of truth.
The internet algorithms are all designed to keep us scrolling and scrolling to generate profit – more importantly it creates a real threat because that push citizens’ acceptance of totalitarian ideas to an alarming level. The solution provided by Mr. Massimo Flore to deconstruct hostile narratives is among other things to find out what vulnerability is exposed by malevolent writers and what is the target group they are seeking. Knowing that we are certainly better prepared to respond.
How to fix the future
Another crucial presentation came from Andrew Rasiej who started his speech from asking whether technology is making it worst for the people, having in mind spreading invigilation and accompanying threats to society. Certainly in his opinion no one will be successful alone in fixing the future. There are several steps Andrew Rasiej proposes to achieve that goal:
1) Resist bad things – which means bad technology, racism etc. He uses a great metaphor saying that if needed we should wear metaphoric gloves while using technology that is not necessarily perfect. We should keep ourselves accountable for values, ask ourselves questions on the impact of what we are building and whether or not we are building WITH, not FOR.
2) Connect people to each other – be present in your own community, both at your local community or at work. In connecting with the others we should keep in mind if our interlocutor is heard. In doing so we should not forget to also talk to those with whom we disagree, not only to those who are close to our way of thinking.
3) Invent new systems (to replace the old) – there is a deceit in all discussions about Gov Tech. We should remember that civic technology can be any solution that helps the public good! It also applies to big commercial companies creating IT systems.
Mr. Andrew Rasiej ended up stating that late mayor of the City of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz believed in all that above mentioned steps to protect our values and put morality over every discussed technology. Without obeying moral standards and good practices of public participation the future cannot be really „fixed”.
The first day of Personal Democracy Forum brought us plenty of ideas on how to counter populist messages and drive healthy discussion about using technology for the public good. All could also find what they were seeking by participating in dedicated workshops on e.g. finding online tools for credible fact-checking, searching for solutions to combat harmful online content and generally how to talk to each other to reach so much needed consensus.
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