European Political Democracy

First workshop of the Jean Monnet Network on European Media and Platform Policies (EuromediApp)

18-20 November 2020
Venue: https://uni-salzburg.webex.com/meet/tales.tomaz

Program

Wed 18 at 15-17:30 CET

Jean Monnet Network EuromediApp: Kick off meeting

Thu 19 at 16-18:00 CET – First seminar: The future of European political democracy

  • Facilitator: Claudia Padovani
  • Josef Trappel & Werner Maier: brief introduction to the Jean Monnet project
  • Hans-Jörg Trenz: Value conflicts and value polarization in Europe as a challenge to democracy
  • Johanna Kantola: Party Politics and Democracy in Europe: Gender equality in a polarised European Parliament
  • Discussion

Fri 20 at 14:30-16:30 CET – Second seminar: European democracy and the media

  • Facilitator: Peter Bajomi-Lazar
  • Josef Trappel & Werner Maier: brief introduction to the Jean Monnet project
  • Stefania Milan: Political Microtargeting, Algorithmic Bias, Automated Content Delivery: What Future for the European Political Democracy?
  • Václav Štětka: Digital platforms and the shadow of illiberal democracy: lessons from Central and Eastern Europe
  • Discussion

Abstracts

Value conflicts and value polarization in Europe as a challenge to democracy

Hans-Jörg Trenz, University of Copenhagen

The European Union has often been described as a community of values. After more than a decade in crisis mode, this community of values is also coming under increasing pressure. Conflicts of values both between the Member States and within European societies are now shaping the image of an increasingly differentiated EU. In my contribution, I wish to trace this development by placing special emphasis on the connection between a changing media landscape and the new quality and quantity of conflicts of values in the “new EU”.

Party Politics and Democracy in Europe: Gender equality in a polarised European Parliament

Johanna Kantola, University of Tampere

An increasingly polarized European Parliament (EP) has become an important site of radical right populist opposition to gender equality. Through a qualitative analysis of populist interventions in EP plenary debates on gender equality in the 8th legislature (2014–2019), this presentation identifies the discursive strategies adopted by right populists to oppose gender equality. It contributes to scholarly debates on populisms and on gender and politics by respectively suggesting to the former the need to dedicate attention to gender equality as a central aspect in populist ideologies, and to the latter the importance of considering a variety of strategies of radical right opposition to gender equality. Radical right populist strategies include not only indirect but also direct opposition to gender equality and draw on old and traditional gender imaginaries packaged in novel populist ways. 

Political Microtargeting, Algorithmic Bias, Automated Content Delivery: What Future for the European Political Democracy?

Stefania Milan, University of Amsterdam

We live in an increasingly datafied society. More and more aspects of human and social life are converted into monetizable data points. Algorithmic media and political microtargeting contribute to shape publics. Smart city ecosystems and Artificial Intelligence like facial recognition technology monitor public space. Algorithmic-based decision-making in welfare systems and ‘governance by digital infrastructure’ increasingly jeopardize political agency. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has furthered our dependence on digital infrastructure and datafied governance. The challenges have to do with the ever-increasing degree of automation in the systems responsible for content delivery, public safety, decision-making in the public policy realm. The complexity of such systems introduces a sophisticated (and almost entirely opaque) new layer to the citizens’ ability to access information or exercise their democratic agency.
This talk surveys the challenges for the European polity that derive from the progressive datafication of the physical and digital space we inhabit. In particular, it focuses on the tartegeted delivery of media content and its impact on political behaviour. Based on the Algorithms Exposed (ALEX) research project (European Research Council Proof of Concept 2018-2020—https://algorithms.exposed), it will illustrate how advertisement platforms and content recommender systems continuously filter, weight, and rank a feed of potential items to provide a tailored experience to individuals based on their personal preferences and past behaviour. These algorithmic systems determine what advertisement users see online, what elements make up their social media feed, which products are recommended by their preferred online marketplace, what multimedia content may start to autoplay. These automated decisions—opaque to users—drastically impact our access to information, determine our way of seeing the world, and potentially alter our voting preferences.
Reflecting also on the governance challenges that such situation presents, the talk helps to understand the interaction between data collection, the algorithmic nature of content recommendation systems, the commercial forces at play for such platforms and the individual and societal consequences of their prevalence—and what can Europe do to safeguard its political democracy.

Digital platforms and the shadow of illiberal democracy: lessons from Central and Eastern Europe

Václav Štětka, Loughborough University

The debate about the impact of the Internet and social media on democracy and the public sphere has seen a notable shift in recent years – the initially optimistic, or even enthusiastic perspective, emphasizing the democratizing and participatory potential of the digital technologies, has been very much eclipsed by a notably darker view, focusing on the rise of online disinformation and hate speech, or on the formation of “echo chambers” and the fragmentation of the public sphere. However, this discussion has been mostly carried out within the political and social context of established Western democracies, and the US and the UK in particular, while less attention has been paid to the role and effect of online communication in countries with more fragile – and less democratic – political and media systems.

In this paper, I am going to place this debate within the context of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region which has been recently affected by a process of significant democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarian populism and illiberalism. Utilizing empirical findings from our research project The Illiberal Turn? News Consumption, Political Polarization and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, this presentation will explore patterns of relationship between consumption of both traditional as well as new media, and people’s political attitudes and support for democracy.

Based on the results, the paper will argue that the role of the Internet and social media is more ambivalent in the CEE countries than in many of their Western counterparts; while often infested with disinformation and strategically utilized for pro-government propaganda, in some of these countries the digital platforms increasingly provide the last refuge for oppositional news channels and a safe communication space for the public – a lesson that needs to be taken into account when discussing the measures that should bring the platforms under a stricter regulatory control on the national and EU level.

Context

Net-optimists highlight that the new media improve access to information, and may enable people to participate actively in deliberative processes. Digitisation has an emancipating potential in that new media might work as a channel of upward social mobility for the poor, the uneducated, and the deprived. By contrast, many net-pessimists suggest that informed decision-making and active political participation are challenged by political polarisation, populism, fake news, disinformation campaigns, and the emergence of the post-truth world, largely owing to the commercial algorithms used by social media platforms such as so-called GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft). The decline of legacy media, especially among the younger audiences, undermines the gate-keeping, mediating and moderating functions once efficiently met by professional journalists, and compromises the quality of public communication, whose language has turned largely subjective, emotional, and even offensive. The rise of smart phones has created tech-addiction, especially among children.

In fact, while many academic conferences held two decades ago voiced concerns about the lack of media pluralism, in more recent times media researchers have warned of the dangers associated with too much media pluralism. It is frequently argued that the proliferation of media platforms and channels— generated by the rise of the Internet in general and that of the Web 2.0 in particular—has diversified media to such an extent that the ensuing fragmentation of the audiences challenges the smooth operation of a public sphere jointly shared by all. The rise of global virtual communities on the Web has created multiple public spheres with little in common, which may ultimately undermine democratic cohesion. This is all the more problematic when such multiplicity is both a reflection and a source of conflicting values in society; and it also parallels instances of value polarization – ultra-conservative vs progressive principles, representative democracy vs populism, liberal vs illiberal governance, but also openness vs proprietary principles, societal inclusion vs exclusion, trust vs distrust, gender-aware vs antigender mobilizations – that impact on and shape emerging communication ecologies. The abovementioned developments raise crucial issues for the European Union in its attempt to respond to the current crises – not only the Covid19 pandemic, but social, environmental and inequality crises – on the basis of the democratic principles that foreground its operation.

The seminar – organised as the opening event of a newly established Jean Monnet Network in association with the Euromedia Research Group – calls for a dialogue between scholars of European integration, European politics and policies, and scholars who address the future of European democracy from a media and communication perspective.

This first seminar aims at exposing and critically analysing the challenges and constrains to European political democracy deriving from value polarizations through a trans-disciplinary dialogue, so that the subsequent work of the Jean Monnet Network can build on a more articulated understanding of the challenges and opportunities of political democracy in the region. Following seminars will address issues concerning Europe’s news ecology (journalism, professionalism, changing practices and business models) and European governance models and regulation for the media and digital platforms.

The overall contribution of the Jean Monnet Network is to elaborate a careful assessment of the societal and political impacts of the Web on the lives of Europeans, as well as its potential contribution to the future of democracy in Europe. In the course of the project, media and communication scholars will highlight, and reflect upon, the potentials of the new media in promoting meaningful public communication, enhancing informed and consensus-based decision-making, raising environmental awareness, and integrating diverse audiences along democratic principles in one public sphere in both the national and the European contexts. Furthermore, they will work to identify the regulatory frameworks and business models that may optimise the democratising potential of the Web and help to counter or mitigate the unwelcome effects of digitisation. All seminars, activities and related discussions will provide elements to develop teaching modules for higher education institutions, thus linking knowledge exchange, research and educational activities.