Digital transformation is fundamentally changing our lives, our public sphere has turned into a digital information sphere. This ongoing transformation is creating enormous opportunities but also brings huge challenges.
Fostering innovation to improve public dialogue in the digital sphere is an important mission for media development. DW Akademie has identified "Innovation for Dialogue" as a key field of action in its digital strategy. It is responding to a series of challenges.
It is true that thanks to digital transformation people can participate in and shape social debates in many new ways. Technology offers endless possibilities to make information quickly available. Everyone can now immediately share and comment on that information. People can engage in dialogue on public affairs in new ways. Issues can be discussed on various social media sites, comment forums or messaging platforms.
However, the existing technological tools and current approaches often fail to ensure a free and level playing field for everyone. They also fail to guarantee everybody’s right to freedom of expression and include all relevant groups, such as disadvantaged and underrepresented communities, into conversations around public issues.
New barriers have emerged. Access to technical equipment, computers, smartphones, Internet access, and affordable data, as well as the knowledge, skills and competencies to handle technology, are preconditions for participating in public discussions. Language becomes another barrier when people cannot find enough content in their native tongue.
New technology provides new ways for information to become visible, amplified, and prioritized. It defines what information will have a better chance to be part of and dominate public discussions. Journalists and media companies are no longer the gatekeepers of information and drivers of debates. They have been replaced by social media platforms, which have been created and maintained by private companies that provide crucial infrastructure for the public sphere. Their algorithms, which fundamentally define the character of public debate, are mainly optimized to increase advertising revenues rather than ensuring that public discussions live up to their full potential. States are increasingly trying to regulate these platforms and enforce that public interest equally be considered, but the platforms' fundamental business model — providing infrastructure in exchange for data — remains unchanged.
This digital information ecosystem is therefore full of friction and turbulence. Our public sphere is shrinking.
Special interest groups with influence and money, often with minority views, stand a good chance of driving public discussions in favor of their interests. Bad actors such as tech-savvy extremists, terror groups or authoritarian states can easily hijack debates to serve their purposes.
Because untrustworthy information spreads quickly, bad actors frequently use these platforms to share disinformation and propaganda. They deploy social bots as “weapons” to amplify their views, deviate political debates and disrupt elections.
Information on the one hand seems abundant, but people often feel overwhelmed, disoriented and doubtful. They lack filters for the available truthful and trustworthy information, without which public dialogue can easily collapse into chaos.
Discussions are often dominated by emotions rather than facts, as social media algorithms favor emotions that drive higher engagement with their users and result in greater advertising revenues.
Debates become quickly polarized and are frequently characterized by various forms of online harassment. Trolling and bullying can prevent people from freely participating in public debates and public affairs generally. They are often used to silence critical opinion, as well.
People increasingly interact in closed channels on messaging services on dark social media, which carries the risk of segregating them from other groups and the public. Discussions are becoming fragmented, effectively preventing societies from creating common ground and narratives.
Over the next decade, hundreds of millions of people will connect to the Internet for the first time, most of them in the Global South. The masses of new users, many of them digitally inexperienced and often coming from low-income and conservative societies, will bring new user patterns and behaviors, exacerbating the current challenges and bringing new ones.
Free and independent media outlets are now struggling to survive, therefore journalists — unless they find more appropriate content, formats and channels to help them be a part of the online public dialogue — will continue to shrink in importance.
Governments will use these negative tendencies to introduce tougher regulations. Authoritarian regimes will find more arguments to approve stricter rules and use them to stifle critical views.
Technological innovation will continue to be shaped by for-profit companies such as social media platforms, of which the business logic will not fundamentally change.
Commercial interests will be the main drivers for further rapid technological progress. The expansion of Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and virtual and augmented reality will quickly alter the information landscape and create new avenues for negative online behavior and more sophisticated methods of manipulation.
Innovation in this field means that societies must be able to take full control of their public discussions using an infrastructure that serves the public instead of private interests.
They should be able to define for themselves the issues they deem relevant, instead of algorithms that are optimized to increase advertising revenues. Societies must create digital public spaces without barriers and protect them from restrictions and manipulations.
If societies fail to develop new approaches and find new solutions to offset the harmful effects of digital transformation on our public sphere, these negative tendencies will have a greater impact and social cohesion will be at stake.
DW Akademie's publication "Media Development in Practice: Innovation for Dialogue" looks at how public dialogue could become fairer for all.