Civitates - Public Discourse


What we tackle

Public discourse plays a vital role in open, democratic societies. It is an important forum through which people can voice their concerns and form opinions. Moreover, public discourse provides input for decision making processes. Digitization has fundamentally changed the way information is produced, distributed and consumed and thereby affects the public discourse. The implications of these changes cannot yet be fully grasped.

Recent years have witnessed the rise of a handful of technological platforms as dominant players in a digital information ecosystem that has allowed an unpresented outreach of news and information. Online platforms provide new opportunities for social engagement, both in the production of news and information, and in online activism and movement building. At the same time, the functioning of tech platforms also raises concerns on the quality of public discourse.

Algorithms, which have replaced the human editor as information gatekeepers, are designed to help advertising succeed rather than to inform the public about matters of societal concern. Additionally, unlike with traditional media, there are few potent mechanisms for holding tech platforms accountable. Furthermore, the lack of regulation and transparency of the algorithms used by online platforms, the role of these platforms and their interactions with the digital advertising industry and political actors, and issues related to data protection and data exploitation, make it easier to manipulate public discourse through disinformation. Moreover, some current regulatory responses can be problematic for democracy when they are focused on content regulation, and thereby likely to criminalize certain forms of speech and expression, negatively impacting freedom of speech.

The societal discussion on this topic is expanding, with a wide variety of stakeholders raising their voices. Among them are authorities (e.g. the European Commission’s high-level expert group on fake news and disinformation), media organizations, technological and commercial companies, and a range of civil society organizations (e.g. freedom of expression groups, digital rights groups…). Each actor brings its own perspective but coordinated efforts to deal with the challenges at hand are few. Additional knowledge is crucially required to fully understand the implications of the digital public sphere.

What we want to achieve

We want to empower civil society to address digital digital disinformation and the characteristics of the digital information ecosystem that enable the manipulation of public discourse, including the lack of gatekeepers, transparency and accountability.

To better understand commonalities across Europe and find ways in which challenges can be mitigated, Civitates will support initiatives that identify and advocate for targeted regulatory responses to specific problems of the current and future digital environment.

A strong cohort of civil society actors across Europe that informs the debate and drives a reform agenda for the digital public sphere will also indirectly help people in Europe to understand how the digital news and information ecosystem works so that they can make decisions about their ‘information diet’ and have access to a plurality of media, news sources and content.


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