Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
29 April 2022

Democracy in the digital age

A high-level public event with EU Commissioner Věra Jourová tackles the risks of misinformation and disinformation, and what the EU is doing about them.

What is the European Union doing to fight against disinformation and misinformation? What measures are being taken by the European Union to strengthen freedom of expression, media freedom, and electoral processes? Those were some of the questions that guided the high-level public event organised by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 25 April.

The event was convened and moderated by Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Distinguished Fellow of the Graduate Institute and Research Associate at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy.

In her welcome remarks, Marie-Laure Salles, Director of the Graduate Institute, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digital turn that now affects almost every area of social and political life. This development, she continued, has two faces: a bright side that includes further opportunities for connection and a darker one that leads to an increasingly fragmented public sphere and widespread misinformation and disinformation. She called this a “poison” for our democracies”. As misinformation and disinformation are made possible by the lack of control, regulation and sanctions in the digital space, she highlighted the global importance of the responses currently designed in Europe.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, then delivered an online opening statement in which she underlined the challenges digital technologies present for human rights. “We do not have to look far for signs of regression”, she argued, referring to online hate speech and the surveillance of, and attacks on, human rights defenders. Over 60 countries are considering new laws to regulate social media, she continued, many of which are problematic for human rights. She highlighted three key elements that must be present in such laws: protecting our right to participate, which includes the involvement of civil society in the development of new laws; preserving the right of freedom of expression both online and offline; as well as ensuring a right to privacy in the digital realm.

Irene Khan then offered introductory remarks. She described freedom of expression as a “meta-right”, noting that it plays a critical role in the enjoyment of a host of other rights, such as health, the health of the planet, the right to protest and political participation, as well as academic freedom. Her recent Report on Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression, she continued, suggests that disinformation is nothing new. What is new is “the digital technology that can spread disinformation at a speed and scale never known before. This threatens our democracies, our economies, our health and much more”. She called for greater protection of freedom of expression, as the best means to combat disinformation.

Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, and chair of the Commissioners’ Group on a New Push for European Democracy, offered a powerful keynote speech which outlined the European Union's efforts to regulate Big Tech after it was concluded that a “gentlemen's agreement” with said companies was insufficient. Among other initiatives, she discussed measures encompassed in the European Democracy Action Plan that focus on three areas: fighting against disinformation; protecting elections; and strengthening independent media. On disinformation, she highlighted the Plan’s goal was not to control content but to increase Member States and the EU’s capacity to respond to it, impose costs on perpetrators, and target unlawful content when amplified and monetized at scale. She spoke of a new code of conduct or ‘pact’ with platforms, advertisers, and civil society that will come with robust indicators of performance.

After a discussion between Jourová and Khan, Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, offered concluding remarks. She stressed the need for companies to do more and for states to strike a balance between fighting the pitfalls of the digital public sphere while not tampering with human rights.

The event took place in a hybrid format.

Watch it again here:

Democracy in the digital age