The facts are in dis­pute, threat­en­ing democ­racy

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Shirin Ebadi & Christophe Deloire

On De­cem­ber 10 1948, the United Na­tions gen­eral as­sem­bly adopted the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, af­firm­ing the view that “the will of the peo­ple” — democ­racy — should form the ba­sis of any gov­ern­ment. But, seven decades later, the world’s democ­ra­cies are in peril.

Af­ter a four­fold in­crease in the num­ber of democ­ra­cies be­tween the end of World War II and 2000, we are now in a sus­tained pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal re­gres­sion. Once open so­ci­eties are veer­ing to­ward dic­ta­tor­ship and in many coun­tries despotic ten­den­cies are strength­en­ing.

These trends can be re­versed, but only if we agree on the causes of demo­cratic back­slid­ing and tar­get our so­lu­tions ac­cord­ingly.

That is eas­ier said than done. In her 1967 es­say Truth and Pol­i­tics, the philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt noted that: “Free­dom of opin­ion is a farce un­less fac­tual in­for­ma­tion is guar­an­teed and the facts them­selves are not in dis­pute.” Un­for­tu­nately, Arendt’s farce has be­come our re­al­ity.

For any democ­racy to be mean­ing­ful, its peo­ple need ac­cess to trust­wor­thy in­for­ma­tion pro­duced in a free and plu­ral­is­tic en­vi­ron­ment. But this ba­sic re­quire­ment is be­ing tested as never be­fore. Around the world, oli­garchs are buy­ing up me­dia out­lets to pro­mote their in­ter­ests and in­crease their in­flu­ence, and jour­nal­ists who re­port on is­sues such as dis­crim­i­na­tion and cor­rup­tion are met with in­tim­i­da­tion, vi­o­lence and mur­der. How can we guar­an­tee free­dom of opin­ion un­der such con­di­tions?

In­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies were sup­posed to give us more free­dom, not less. The early in­ter­net democra­tised news and ended the dom­i­nance of tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers and pro-gov­ern­ment con­glom­er­ates.

But this ini­tial prom­ise has given way to an “in­for­ma­tion jun­gle”, in which deep-pock­eted preda­tors out­ma­noeu­vre an un­sus­pect­ing pub­lic. To­day, gov­ern­ments wage in­for­ma­tion wars, politi­cians use so­cial me­dia to spread lies and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists dis­sem­i­nate de­cep­tive con­tent with ease. As a study from the Mass­a­chu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy re­cently found, fake news spreads on­line faster than real news — of­ten sig­nif­i­cantly so.

Sim­ply put, the glob­al­i­sa­tion of in­for­ma­tion has tipped the scales in favour of those who view false­hoods as a tool of con­trol. Dic­ta­tors eas­ily ex­port their ideas to open so­ci­eties, whereas con­tent pro­duced un­der con­di­tions of free­dom rarely moves in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. This prob­lem has been mag­ni­fied by the growth of multi­na­tional tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, which have come to dic­tate the ar­chi­tec­ture of the pub­lic sphere.

In the his­tory of democ­racy, mech­a­nisms have evolved to im­prove the ac­cu­racy and ethics of jour­nal­ism. Although im­per­fect and of­ten in­vis­i­ble, these reg­u­la­tory pro­tec­tions have brought many ben­e­fits to users and pro­duc­ers alike. But the pace of change in the me­dia in­dus­try — for ex­am­ple, be­tween tele­vi­sion and print, or news and ad­ver­tis­ing — has blurred the clear dis­tinc­tions on which these rules were orig­i­nally based.

Pro­tect­ing demo­cratic ideals in this con­flict­ing en­vi­ron­ment is a vi­tal task. That is why Re­porters With­out Bor­ders is join­ing with No­bel lau­re­ates, tech­nol­ogy spe­cial­ists, jour­nal­ists and hu­man rights ac­tivists to launch the In­for­ma­tion and Democ­racy Com­mis­sion. As cochairs of this in­de­pen­dent ini­tia­tive, our goal is to re­fo­cus global at­ten­tion on the value of “a free and plu­ral­is­tic pub­lic space” and to of­fer so­lu­tions that en­able jour­nal­ists to work with­out fear of reprisal and al­low the pub­lic to ac­cess ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion eas­ily.

In the com­ing weeks, we will draft an In­ter­na­tional Dec­la­ra­tion on In­for­ma­tion and Democ­racy and, in co-or­di­na­tion with the lead­ers of sev­eral demo­cratic coun­tries, work to se­cure sup­port from gov­ern­ments around the world.

Our ef­forts will ac­cel­er­ate in midNovem­ber, when global lead­ers gather in Paris to com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of Armistice Day and to at­tend the Peace Fo­rum and the In­ter­net Gov­er­nance Fo­rum.

Democ­racy, with its roots in the En­light­en­ment ideals of free­dom and rea­son, must be de­fended. Demo­cratic gov­ern­ments and cit­i­zens must not fall vic­tim to fake news, “trolls” and the whims of despots. The In­ter­na­tional Dec­la­ra­tion on In­for­ma­tion and Democ­racy is in­tended to strengthen the abil­ity of open so­ci­eties to com­bat au­thor­i­tar­ian forces.

We have the good for­tune to be alive dur­ing a pe­riod of ex­tra­or­di­nary tech­no­log­i­cal po­ten­tial. But we also have the re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure that new ways of shar­ing in­for­ma­tion are not turned into tools of op­pres­sion. As the mis­sion state­ment of our com­mis­sion puts it: “Democ­racy’s sur­vival is at stake, be­cause democ­racy can­not sur­vive with­out an in­formed, open and dy­namic pub­lic de­bate.” — © Project Syn­di­cate

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