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Reflections on democratic dialogue in a digital age

Below is the speech I gave on October 26 at the Gothenburg University and Västra Götaland region’s national conference about MIK for a democratic citizenship. The speech is translated into English.

In September 2020, I ended my commission by the Swedish Government as a Special Counsel for the protection of democratic dialogue. leading a national campaing on media and information literacy in Sweden. I submitted my report to the then Minister of Culture and Democracy, Amanda Lind. Over the course of two years, together with colleagues in the committee, I visited over 50 municipalities, around a hundred meeting places, met with the big five tech companies in the USA, and learned about how other countries are working to increase resistance to misinformation, propaganda and hate speech online. During my commission we produced an anthology and wrote a report for the government.

During the the last days of my work as a Special Counsel, we wrote a debate article and I prepared to hand in my report. It went well, mostly. It felt like many of our conversations and dialogues made others progress in their thoughts on the subjects, an many took action to improve in their respective contexts. It felt nice to finish a chapter and devote myself to new and different things.

But the next chapter did not turn out as I had expected. Despite the fact that I for two years had devoted myself to conversations about exactly how threats and hatred, disinformation and propaganda affect the democratic dialogue, I had not imagined that I myself would be exposed to it. Perhaps that was naive, but thats what it was. And I could not imagine what it would mean for me, for my family and for colleagues.

The next chapter for me was going to be a time of turmoil, enduring vitriolic comments, receiving tweets, comment posts and letters. It turned out that some of the destructive forces that want to influence Sweden and our public discourse, and that I portrayed in my report, in my lectures and conversations, such as Russia, China and the Nordic Resistance Movement (a neo-nazi organisation), did not appreciate having the spotlight on them. All these actors came to actively expose me to different kinds of attempts at malign influence. For me, it went so far that I had to receive support and protection over a period of time.

But the incident also affected me. I became scared. Afraid of what would happen to me and my loved ones. Afraid to write something that would stir up the dust again. Afraid of the consequences of doing what all citizens in a democracy have the right to do, to make their voice heard. What made it even harder for me was that that was the intention. To scare me. To limit myself. To shut me up.

I experienced for myself the difficult problems and challenges our democracy, and our democratic dialogue, is facing. And I got to experience very practically and concretely how valuable media and information literacy is for navigating an extremely complex time. And about how vulnerable you can be, when you lack knowledge.

These experiences stay with me, and probably always will. They have made me understand to an even greater degree the importance of equipping and strengthening our democracy and the democratic dialogue.

Today, the democratic dialogue takes place to a large extent over the internet and social media. It has enabled more people to participate and make their voices heard. But digital technology has also made it easier to spread online hate, misinformation and propaganda.

When hate and threats increase. When misinformation permeates and affects us, it risks dividing societies and pitting people against each other. It risks disrupting our democratic decision-making processes and our ability to deal with difficult societal challenges. Through conspiracy theories and misleading information, science and accepted beliefs are called into question. It is particularly problematic at a time when we are facing major and difficult threats, such as the climate crisis, the aftermath of a pandemic and war in Europe and in many other places in the world.

As I reflect on these challenges, I can’t help but think how different our arenas for public discourse have become in a short time.

Today, we converse, reason, discuss and interact to a large extent digitally. This means that we have a medium between those who are in conversation and dialogue. The medium can be the phone, the video call, the chat group, social media, an online forum and so forth. Places. Somewhere these can be seen as places in a digital age. Places that we visit in order to meet each other digitally.

What do the places we visit mean for our democracy? For our social fabric? For how we live and socialize?

During the rise of industrial society, we saw a need from the public and civil society to organize and develop places for society’s conversation and interaction. During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, we saw the development of public schools, public libraries, study associations and public colleges, clubs, societies and many other different forms of democratic organizations. The places where a democratic dialogue could take place could take many different forms. It could be the informal places like the park, the cafe, the home, the study circle or the library. But it could also be at school, at the workplace, in the municipal council and in the national parliament. Each of these places was shaped over time for its purpose and the needs of the users, individuals, grops and societies. These purposes could be private, public, or sprung from popular movements, associations, and civil society. In our physical world there are both bookshops and libraries, commercial and public alternatives, and the role of civil society for a democratic dialogue is clear.

But how does it look today? Yes, in quite a short time we have all come to spend more time in the digital spaces that make up our everyday lives. It can be Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Youtube and many other places. One thing that characterizes them is that they are essentially commercial arenas, with a commercial purpose, owned by global actors with financial incentives.

Many of these digital services and products offer fantastic opportunities for interaction. But I can’t help but think about what it means that we have come to replace a large flora of places, designed with the aim of developing society and democracy, with arenas cast in completely different forms. To some extent we have, without really reflecting on it very much, privatized some of society’s most important meeting places and public places. The commercial logic behind these new digital places is what shapes the conversations, that creates limitations and opportunities.

And to be frank, it is important to state that whoever owns, understands and shapes our data, and whoever designs our digital services, also contributes to shaping our society.

If we want to create better conditions for democracy in a digital age, we need to think about how we can shape and develop our physical and digital spaces together to meet the challenges of our time. We need to see initiatives that spring from civil society as well as from the public sector, and from businesses.

And while we work on strengthening society’s democratic infrastructure to face an ever more digital world, we all need knowledge and education to be part of an increasingly digital society.

We all have a knowledge horizon, beyond which we have difficulty understanding and interpreting what is happening. The more knowledge we have about the challenges and opportunities of our time, the better conditions we have to face the new and the unknown. Our lifelong learning moves our knowledge horizon further away, and allows us to face the world with the necessary knowledge at any moment. Through lifelong learning, we can come to an understanding of when we lack knowledge, so that we can set out on a journey of discovery for new knowledge, in order to thus move our knowledge horizon further again.

In this way, our ongoing learning journey, where media and information literacy is a key component, is a crucial part in the development of a strong democracy.

But we also have to translate the knowledge and insights we have into action. Because it’s what we do, our actions, that really change the world. We also need to share the knowledge we have with others. Because that’s one of the nice things about knowledge. It can be shared, and by doing so it becomes bigger and mixes with other knowledge, and grows in the meeting and forms new knowledge. 

For my own part, I look forward to contributing new thoughts and knowledge that stem from the work that is now underway in [a think tank]( techjatters-influence) I participate in, and which was formed by the Nordic Council of Ministers. The task is to put forward proposals on how we strengthen democracy in a digital age, where large global tech companies influence the conditions.

I am also looking forward to the coming year’s work with Gothenburg’s sustainability award WIN WIN, which for 2023 is now seeking nominations for the award for actors who fight misinformation in various ways. An important work to pay attention to, and where media and information literacy plays a big role.

So, to conclude this speech. Democracy is at its strongest when we all participate and are given equal opportunities to influence our common future. Democracy becomes credible and important when we feel that it matters to us in our everyday lives. When it gives us the opportunity to express what we think and think and when it is practiced with respect for the equal value, freedom and dignity of all people.

We must join together in order to create a democratic dialogue in which we all can, and dare to participate. Both here in the physical space and in the digital places where we are.


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