Information and Democracy Seminar
Symbiosis-School of Political Studies affiliated to the Council of Europe Network of Schools organised in Thessaloniki a three-day seminar, from 5 to 7 December 2019, on ‘Information and Democracy’. Greece is no exception to global trends. During the 2011-2018 crisis, a gradual withdrawal of trust to traditional media has been observed, while pressure to the media sector has resulted to online fragmentation, a changing and polarized TV market, a print sector in crisis and one of the highest uses of social media for news consumers. As trust in media plummets, new sources of information such as social media platforms and vlogs fail to provide the necessary fact-checking assurances, in many cases acting as incubators of disinformation. Initiatives aiming to expose vulnerabilities related to the consumption of news act as indicators of the ever-challenging environment in which trust in information would be the exception rather than the rule.
The sessions focused in presenting the evolution of media through time and examined the challenges stemming from the transition to new ones. New media and tech giants should be held to account, based on the need for transparency, responsibility and neutrality. Is it therefore justified, or even feasible, to mandate them with upholding specific standards of information – and who would decide on them anyway? The purpose has been to introduce participants to new and old news-production models, to identify their basic characteristics, reflect on their social and political outreach and allow a comparison between old and new challenges, including disinformation and ways that new technologies could be used for good purposes allowing journalists to cross-check information and analyze data more efficiently. Further, the sessions reflected on new ways of engaging citizens into dialogue with media and participating responsibly in news production, including building capacities against hate speech through education.
The seminar began with a panel on ‘Freedom of Media and democracy’ during which Yiannis Kotsifos (E.S.I.E.M-Th Director, Board of Directors of the European Federation of Journalists), Christos Frangonikolopoulos (School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University) and Stevi Kitsou (Lawyer, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, Athens) highlighted the inextricable linkage between democracy and freedom of expression and media. The necessity of balanced information systems in democracy was elaborated through their speeches. Various aspects of this relationship were presented, as well as the challenges being faced during the information age.
During the second panel ‘Are we getting the information we need?’, Lambrini Papadopoulou (School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Panteio University, Council of Europe expert) linked the issues related to media freedom with the abundance of information we consume on a daily basis. Lambrini referred to the pressure imposed on journalists nowadays, as well as the state of unwarranted interference, fear and self-censorship that has been criticized in a report of 2017, published by the Council of Europe. Sofia Papadopoulou (Journalist, Athens-Macedonian News Agency) contributed by addressing questions regarding to the relationship between quantity and quality of the information we receive. Sofia argued that information no longer contributes to the expansion of our knowledge of an event or a fact, but rather undermines it by creating a paradox. The speakers highlighted the importance of the options we have and the choices we make in relation to the management of information.
During the third panel of the first day ‘Media Today – Where to investigate journalism and challenges for traditional Media?’, Filios Stagos (Journalist), Antonis Repanas (Journalist, HumanStories) and Dimitris Xenakis (Co-founder and Publisher of ‘Inside Story’) reflected on the challenges traditional media face in the era of media revolution. In particular, the constantly changing global environment shaped by the economic downturn, the drastic changes in business models, as well as the rise of social media brought journalism and the role of the journalist at a critical point globally. This multi-factorial problem was in the heart of the conversation of this panel with the speakers highlighting the role of the journalist and media in this new context. The challenges for the investigative journalism were highlighted, but also the importance, necessity and its role for the proper function of balanced democracies was elaborated.
The fourth panel ‘Media Literacy; Empowered and responsible citizens in the management of information’ encompassed presentation by Nikos Panagiotou (Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University), who argued that media literacy is the key tool in restoring the trust on media and institutions as it enables citizens to develop a critical understanding of the messages being transmitted through the old and especially through the new media. During this panel, two communication projects were presented by Marina Tomara (Communications specialist, ACCMR) who presented the example of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrants and Refugees Platform, while Elli Papastergiou from Symβiosis presented the project ‘Get the Trolls Out!’ which is dedicated to the monitoring of hate speech related to religion, implemented across Europe. Both projects contribute to the empowerment of active citizens in the management of information.
During the second day of the seminar and the panel ‘Media tomorrow – Information in the digital era; from the internet to social media and beyond’, Florents Tselai (Data Scientist), Yannis Sidiropoulos (Journalist, Assistant at European Parliament), Andreas Takis (Assistant Professor, School of Law, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) and Evangelos Papadakis (UNHCR Communication) discussed how, today, social media is an integral part of everyday life for a large part of the population and has taken a leading role in the field of information. The speakers elaborated on issues related to the new reality shaped by social media in regards to information, opportunities, such as the power of data, and challenges resulting from this new context, as well as the ways information is shaped in the era of social media. Emphasis was placed on the fact that today’s innovative communication networks and interaction practices’ functionality is based on anonymity and/or pseudonymity. According to Andreas Takis, this development could easily be lurking new risks with regards to the rights of the persons involved. The question is whether these risks could be seen as an alibi or a justification for those fighting against anonymity on social media and to what extent such a scenario could be feasible without a price for democracy.
During the panel ‘Monitoring Disinformation and Fact Checking’ Andreas Veglis (School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University) presented methodologies and technological tools that can be used by citizens for the monitoring of disinformation. Particular emphasis was given on the tools that can be used for the verification of multimedia content (photographs and videos). Thanos Sitistas (Administrator/Coordinator Ellinika (Greek) Hoaxes) introduced fact checking techniques used by Ellinika Hoaxes which is a Greek fact-checking website and member of the International Fact-Checking Network with the stated goal of tackling disinformation. Andreas Vasiliou (Political Scientist, Greek League of Human Rights) presented the case of how the refugees and migrant issue is being mis-presented by media both on a national and European level.