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Media and politics in the age of algorithms

Venice, 12/10/2018 - 14/10/2018, Aspen Seminars for Leaders

A key observation made at the start of discussions at this Aspen Seminar for Leaders session was that the main shift entailed by the digital revolution is not just technological, but especially cultural, in nature. It was noted that in past decades, a vertical relationship prevailed in the world between the management of political power and the media. Today, this relationship is very different, and has become horizontal. This was seen as requiring a rethink of many aspects of contemporary society that seemed settled, particularly in light of the new relationship that has developed between the media and the political sphere. To accomplish this, it will first be necessary to dispel a number of myths that are still very widespread. By way of example, it was underlined that the internet is not and has never been a haven of freedoms. On the contrary, it often serves as a driver of inequality and division. One suggested solution was the idea of curbing the power of algorithms through other algorithms, though it was felt that time alone would show whether this option would be effective or not.

Others took a more drastic view, characterizing the power of the internet as ultimately harmful to democracy. The time of the Arab uprisings, when Facebook and Twitter mobilized Egypt’s town squares, is now a distant memory: today many authoritarian and dictatorial regimes have learned how to use social networks, control the internet, and exercise censorship. First and foremost of these is China, from which hails a model of monitoring and scoring the behavior of citizens, with direct consequences on their professional and private lives.

Russia’s purported meddling in the US elections that led to Donald Trump’s presidential win – though still the subject of investigations – has for some time now been the emblematic example of the digital impact on democracies. It was stressed, however, that while digitalization has certainly had a disruptive effect on building political consensus, it does not explain the whole phenomenon. Paradoxically, the exponential growth of online media has put paid to another myth, namely, that the internet would kill "good journalism". In point of fact, despite the crisis and various restructures aimed at contending with the new revolutionary media landscape, newspapers have reemerged as exemplars of quality, with The New York Times being the standard bearer. The European Commission itself has put in place measures to financially support a quality press.

Other participants, however, opined that professional journalism does not actually sell or generate profits. Indeed, according to this view, rigorous fact-checking is very costly and is not always helpful. Rather, for some it was seen as a recipe for genuine market failure. At the same time, there were dissenting voices who pointed to businesses whose use of fact-checking has led to demonstrable increases in revenue and growth in reputation.

The issue of regulation was also held up as central, though there was recognition that while the regulatory element is important, it does not produce the same results across different countries. What may be beneficial in the West can become an instrument of control and repression in countries ruled by authoritarian and dictatorial regimes.

The complex question of taxation of over-the-top operators also surfaced during the debate. There were those who decried the lack of political efforts to combat the excess power wielded by OTTs, while other participants expressed a preference for resort to moral suasion and voluntary codes of conduct, leaving it up to companies to voluntarily decide whether to sign up to advance the common good.

In contrast, some of those in attendance urged that a solution needs to be found within a broader perspective, employing a proactive approach that puts another key element on the table: that of data access, transparency, and control. Hence, consideration should not be confined to matters of taxation, but should also extend to open-source technology. Within this wider perspective there also needs to be a new social contract between citizens, politicians, and the realm of the major hi-tech companies.

In terms of the prevailing international order, there was recognition of China’s position of dominance when it comes to penetration into the digital landscape of Europe and the United States, a case in point being the growth in size and clout of Alibaba. This is generating far from negligible knock-on effects from a security standpoint, such as concerns in the US over China’s growing expansion in the telecommunications market. The Russians, for their part, have just bought two large Nokia operating system companies with a view to countering the market dominance of Android and iOS. Indeed, the case of Russia was highlighted as a classic example of technology being deployed for political ends. This scenario was viewed as showing up the vulnerabilities of Europe, which – amid US-Chinese rivalry, tensions on the international trade front, and Russian meddling in support of sovereigntism and nationalism – risks arriving at the significant 2019 European parliamentary elections in a state of great debility and confusion.