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Digital Media, the Public Sphere, and Democratic Governance

Tuesday, April 9, 2019
CASBS

Panel discussion with CASBS fellows Mike Ananny, Toomas Ilves, Jake Ward, and CASBS director Margaret Levi. Register HERE.

This symposium is also the third annual Robert A. Scott lecture.

By most measures, life in the digital era has been fundamentally transforming and accelerating since the mid-2000s. Some of this change has served the public good, broadly defined, by creating new opportunities for expression, participation, collective action, and social justice. But some of it – “fake news,” disinformation, threats to democratic processes, and aspects of what many call “surveillance capitalism” – has not.

Are these problems and threats endemic, permanent features of democratic digital life, or are we in an especially turbulent, transitional moment as we learn how to govern new technologies? Social media and online publishing platforms in particular – with enormous data-gathering capacities and powerful pattern-recognition algorithms driven by machine learning and AI – now find themselves under intense scrutiny. Are these firms technology companies, media companies, or both, and why do these distinctions matter? Are they neutral intermediaries producing generic tools, or do they have vested interests in people, messages, and commerce – interests that are too opaque and complex for the public to know and regulate? They have enjoyed a great deal of de facto immunity as carriers of individual and group speech, but how might this power be curbed, redistributed, or shaped with new obligations and responsibilities? How can we move past the idea that technologies have “effects,” and instead see them as part of society, with accountability coming both from within these companies and from outsiders like users, activists, scholars, journalists, and lawmakers? Which changes are easily achievable and implementable today, and which shifts are more fundamental, forcing us to think differently about what it means to survive and thrive with radically new forms of personal autonomy, collective self-governance, and reinvented capitalism?

This panel, consisting of communication scholar Mike Ananny, former president of Estonia Toomas Ilves, comparative political economist Margaret Levi, and technology journalist Jacob Ward brings the cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral expertise needed to explore and demystify these wicked problems and generative questions, as well as offer promising solutions.