Ever since the EU was diagnosed with a so-called ‘democratic deficit’, it has attempted to close the gap between the European elite and its citizens. At first, its communication policies were directed at providing information and ‘educating’ the public about Europe. However, since the mid-2000s, the EU has committed itself (in theory at least) to the idea of a true European public sphere involving genuine dialogue with its citizens. Via its ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (EfCP), the EU now supports various external projects to stimulate this two-way relationship.
A case in point is ‘Debating Europe’, a website created by the organization Friends of Europe, which seeks to stimulate a direct conversation between European citizens and their supranational politicians by connecting them on their online platform. Several of its debates are funded by the EfCP and citizens can engage in these debates by sending in questions or posting comments. Debating Europe then takes these questions to certain ‘European leaders’ like MEPs, policy-makers, academic experts or NGOs to have them respond. However, does Debating Europe actually succeed in its objective of encouraging honest debate and bringing together European leaders and their citizens? How is the interactive process shaped by all these actors?
Although research on the European public sphere has come a long way since the original Habermasian understanding of the term, I argue that the interaction between all these different actors asks for an approach that integrates both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Especially in current-day digital society, traditional media, political actors and citizens are all involved in the online “production, distribution, consumption and discussion of political content on issues of societal relevance.” By understanding the European public sphere as a network of online and offline meaning-making, it becomes possible to see the intersections between EU policies, transnational media discourses and citizens’ practices. Continue reading “Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?”→
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the consequence of the success ofpost-truth politics, and signify its threat for further integration of the European Union. Despite Europe’s ability to overcome times of crisis to further European integration, (as the response to Brexit has shown with discussions over further European defence cooperation,) Brexit nonetheless shows that the emergence of post-truth politics is a threat to the European project.
Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have been the catalyst behind the emergence of post-truth politics. If we’re honest most of us are guilty of selectively choosing news sources that we agree with or those which best speak to our views, hence we live in our little social media bubble in which we share views and opinions with people who already have the same opinions. ‘People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed to‘, and selectively choose information to support those views while resisting perceived falsehoods. The ubiquitous nature of social media, and news media facilitates the ease with which people can seek out news sources which conform to and strengthen, their beliefs, while at the same time driving partisan divide and shutting out contradictory information. This played out in the UK referendum campaign, with a key talking point being Turkey’s potential membership of the EU, playing on the fear of millions more migrants entering the UK. Though proven false as Turkey can only become a Member with the agreement of all EU Member States, this claim was successful in framing the narrative of the campaign to the wider issue of immigration, which drove the Brexit campaign. Another example is the rejection of research based evidence by experts on the implications of a Brexit. This shows, as one conservatoce put it: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’. Attempts to challenge these claims and falsehoods were dismissed as project fear, which makes it difficult to engage in open debate as people become increasingly entrenched in their views.
Brexit is a warning that the EU must address its existing faults and weaknesses, it must take a step back and acknowledge the shift in the political discourse towards post-truth politics. Social media is a key driver in the emergence of Post-truth politics and is key in giving greater voice to Euroscepticism and populism. In the age of post-truth politics, facts and reason are not enough to engage and mobilise voters and signifies the need for the EU to engage citizens through a bottom-up approach, in constructing a positive image for the Union and engaging those who feel left behind.
Can we continue relying on internet hosts to be solely responsible for taking down offensive content or hate speech?
Last week’s headlines traced the scuffle between Norway and Mark Zuckerberg when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, criticised Facebook for removing their photos of the ‘napalm girl’ on account of child nudity. The photo of the ‘napalm girl’ or Phan Thị Kim Phúc, from Vietnam and now a Canadian citizen, was taken on 7th June1972 during the Vietnam War. It shows her as a nine year-old-child, running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack which left her severely burned. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, the image is world famous for its depiction of the violence of the Vietnam conflict. Zuckerberg later reneged on his decision to remove the photo and acknowledged the iconic status of the historical image. Whilst this incident might primarily raise alarm bells about the power that Facebook wields over our modern lives, it is also symptomatic of the arbitrariness of online content monitoring.
Alongside its status as one of the most democratic exercises in information sharing, the internet is home to an increasing body of offensive content and unchecked manifestations of hate speech. Whilst some self-censuring is taking place, (for example in the form of ‘NSFW’ indications and ‘content notes’), such warnings are essentially used in a humorous manner. If there’s to be a concerted effort to tackle hate speech and offensive material which transcends the old adage of turning a blind eye, how is this to be achieved?
Should governments and the international community have a role to play?
Simply put, the answer from the European Convention on Human Rights is a resounding no. Article 10 ECHR guarantees freedom of expression for all and goes on to say that:
‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’
This freedom is extended to internet users and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has confirmed that ‘the state [must] not exercise surveillance over Internet users’ communications and activity on the internet except when this is strictly in compliance with Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention.’ The Court’s case law confirms a support for freedom of expression, even if the article does allow some margin of appreciation for states to take restrictive measures, as was the case in Delfi v. Estonia , where the court held that there had not been a violation of Article 10.
Similarly, Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’.
This is inherently a good thing. Of course there are some countries in Europe where the systematic blocking of whole websites has severely reduced freedom of expression and access to internet material to an unacceptable level. Consider the recent ECHR case, Cengiz and others v. Turkey, where the court unanimously held that there had been a violation of article 10 due to the blocking of access to Google over a long period(Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey ). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?
Net neutrality: a commercial myth?
The hands-off approach taken to internet monitoring by national governments (as advised by the Council of Europe and EU) results in a two-fold problem:
this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies – in charge of monitoring content;
these companies are sensitive to legal threats, as well as their reputation among their users and end up haphazardly take down content without serious reflection.
In the case of the former, the crux is this: when we leave it to web hosts to decide what is suitable content and what isn’t, we are allowing organisations with their own commercial, social and political agendas to act as the moral arbiters for all society. Is this democratic?
And in the case of the latter, this is exactly what happened with Facebook napalm incident. Is this double burden of total freedom and total responsibility not actually counter-productive to freedom of expression online? As the 2016 Annual report on state of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe concludes:
‘the fact that internet intermediaries fear being held liable for the content they transmit may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression online.’
If we’re serious about blocking hate speech and inappropriate content, we need more explicit guidelines from governments and IOs. As it stands, we hail our freedom from government censorship but are trapped in an online game where private web hosts write their own rulebooks.