The symposium “Disinformation in EU elections: The role of social media & technology trends” kicked off the “disinformation season”, with several events about the topic to follow. The COMPACT Symposium provided a platform to discuss how social media and new technologies impact our European political systems. Speakers debated what could be done to make sure our electoral system, social media legislation, and online political advertisement are fit for the digital age.

After a blazing success at last week’s SKILLS FOR SME conference, “event October” continued for DIGITAL SME with yesterday’s COMPACT Symposium at the Permanent Representation of the Slovak Republic to the EU. This time, instead of our routine topics digital skills and SMEs, the topic was more outside of DIGITAL SMEs core competences, but nonetheless of critical importance. After all, a functioning and resilient democracy is at the core of our European societies; without it, there would be no free market, and thus certainly no SMEs.

“Information Operations” as a sophisticated threat to democracy

The COMPACT Symposium provided a space to discuss one of the major threats against democracy in the digital age: disinformation campaigns. Or as panelist Miroslava Sawiris from GLOBSEC put it: “information operations”. (As it turns out, disinformation is only one part of these operations.) With a whopping twenty speakers and panelists from institutions and academia, the symposium covered the topic from a variety of different angles: Regulation, algorithms, platforms, civic responsibility, transparency, accountability, foreign and domestic election interference. An interested audience, consisting in considerable numbers of young people and students, was keen to ask questions; some were answered, some led to more questions, others led to disagreements. Should the focus of policymakers be content regulation or rather content distribution, i.e. algorithms, as Alexandre Alaphilippe from EU Disinfo Lab pointed out? If there is comprehensive regulation, who will enforce it? Or is there a “need to update transparency and accountability in online political advertisement” as Raphael Kergueno from Transparency International proposed?

First panel (from left): Lubos Kuklis, Paolo Cesarini, Alexandre Alaphilippe, Raphael Kergueno.

Civilising our “Wild Digital World”—an impossible challenge?

One comment by Croatian COMPACT partner and researcher Munir Podumljak from Partnership for Social Development seemed to sum up the challenge quite succinctly: “We need to civilise our digital world”. One recurrent problem with disinformation and misinformation is that information follows an attraction spiral; sensational content has more reach than “normal” content. At the same time, social media platforms build their algorithms in a way that favours this type of content. Therefore, the symposium also addressed the question of the business model of social media platforms—how can actors behave responsibly when their business model builds on generating revenue from advertisements? Smaller companies in the digital sector provide tailored and hands-on ICT solutions to their business partners, while some large platforms build their business on advertisement and understanding human behaviour by collecting huge amounts of data. Regulatory proposals such as the Digital Services Act provide comprehensive regulation that want to address the societal risks associated with large platforms, but that may have a negative effect on the business models of our SME companies.

The second panel (from left): Martin Gajdoš, Miroslava Sawiris, Lutz Guellner, Rasto Kužel, Florian Pennings.

SMEs must be part of the solution

At the end of the day, one thing is certain: the COMPACT Symposium has not solved the problem of disinformation on social media, nor how to ensure that platforms act more responsibly in this context. It has, however, shown once more that there are important debates to be had on the European level, and that they must be transparent and involving a true cross-section of the European society, including policymakers, civil society, industry, academia, and—you guessed it—SMEs. We wouldn’t be DIGITAL SME if we didn’t point out the obvious: “Be wary of solutions that don’t involve SMEs. Some regulations imposed without giving thought to small business might create a monster that does more harm than good”. DIGITAL SME Programme Manager Annika Linck’s words should echo in the ears of Brussels policymakers who tackle this issue at the heart of European democracy. 

Third panel (from left): Andrej Skolkay, Tanja Pavleska, Lukasz Porwol, Munir Podumljak, Oles Kulchytskyy

More photos from the Brussels COMPACT Symposium: