Free and fair elections and an informed and pluralistic democratic debate

Speech by European Ombudsman, Ms. Emily O’ Reilly during the EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights on 27 November 2018

When I last spoke at this colloquium in 2016, Donald Trump had just been elected to the White House and that election, combined with Brexit, provoked an ongoing examination of the role of new technologies in shaping the quality of our democracies. Every election is potentially exploitable and the challenge for the political system is how to make sure that the democratic ideals of free and fair elections, an informed public, and an independent and credible information flow are maintained.

Social media has become the attack weapon of choice for demagogues, for populists and for any hostile actor. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal spelled out the consequences of the massive harvesting of personal data by a handful of giant tech companies. Never has the observation that ‘Information is Power’ carried such weight.

The problem is not just that of targeted disinformation but rather the erosion of the space between truth and fiction, with facts no longer seen as objective truths but rather as subjective opinions to be believed or disbelieved depending on one’s emotional and tribal reaction to the fact rather than on informed and rational observation.

This is precisely the fuel that propels the engine of Donald Trump and others skilled at identifying the weaker spots of human nature. And if democracy necessarily implies public debate around a shared set of accepted facts then the potential for democratic erosion is obvious and is already happening.

We should of course guard against the idea that the past was somehow different and purer. The political system has always tried to exploit fear and ignorance for political advantage and to hide its own failings through propaganda or the manipulation of the truth. The difference now is the scale and intensity of this process, its accessibility, and the challenge of regulation and control.

What’s also unprecedented is the increasing erosion of our capacity to spot propaganda even if we consider ourselves to be alert, well informed and sceptical of much that comes into our news feed. Deep fake news, for example, is a phenomenon which allows essentially the forgery of a person’s speech to have people believe that it’s real. This was referred to in a recent newspaper article as the place where “truth goes to die”.

But even if the challenge appears overwhelming this new game isn’t entirely one sided. A recent Commission conference on election interference in the digital age showed us the wide range of actors, political, technological, civil society, educational and academic enthusiastically contributing to the work of making our democracy great again. What came across most strongly to me was the absolute necessity of collaborative work. No one actor holds the key to solving these problem but it has to be a political imperative to join and to co-ordinate the dots of everyone with a role to play in shaping what happens next.

But the appropriate control of the online is not a substitute for what happens in the offline. Even Trump and others like him knows that Twitter is just one part of the bread and circuses equation and that he still needs to deliver on matters essential to the improvement of people’s daily lives.

What happens when the economic pie does not keep growing, or not everyone gets a slice of it? Or people think they will lose their jobs to technology. Or when the EU is not seen as delivering a future of hope. Such fears can be fertile ground for spreading fake news and while regulating big tech is important, how people experience fairness and dignity in their lives is even more so.

My job as European Ombudsman is to help the EU administration to live up to the values set for it in the founding treaties and in the charter of fundamental rights. In a world where political and civic norms are increasingly debased, the temptation to cast them aside in a panicked response to the success of the populist is obvious but most be resisted.
The Union can and must take a global leadership role both in refreshing our democratic institutions and in reinforcing their values. And to do so its institutional leaders need to exemplify those values in their words and above all in their actions.

We need to adjust to the new digital reality — its opportunities and threats — but we need to get the offline basics right too.