Members' Research Service By / March 28, 2019

Truth, trust and democracy: in a digital world, is knowledge still power?

Trust and truth have been two sides of the same coin since the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. The words trust and truth originate from the same linguistic root: proto-indo-European -deru, meaning something firm, solid and steadfast – like wood.

Written by Naja Bentzen,

EPRS round table discussion - Trust, truth and democracy: In a digital world, is knowledge still power ?Trust and truth have been two sides of the same coin since the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. The words trust and truth originate from the same linguistic root: proto-indo-European –deru, meaning something firm, solid and steadfast – like wood. Today, several thousands of years later, we are seeing a new wave of pressure on facts and information, which are being manipulated for ideological and/or economic purposes, while emotions often trump evidence. The ongoing a crisis of facts, expertise and trust is a challenge for media, institutions and experts.

Some use the notion of post-truth – the Oxford Dictionaries choice as 2016 word of the year – while RAND experts use the idea of ‘truth decay’ to capture four related trends: growing disagreement about facts; blurred lines between opinion and fact; increasing influence of opinion and feeling over fact; and declining trust in traditionally respected sources of factual information. Some argue that we should call this development anti-enlightenment, to highlight that the development is pushed by groups of players who benefit from it: some state- and non-state actors strategically try to undermine our open democracies, while commercial players – big online platforms – monetise and instrumentalise our online behaviour and the personal data they collect.

Against this backdrop, the EPRS – whose explicit aim it is to empower through knowledge, and therefore has an obvious interest in countering pressure on facts and expertise – organised a Library discussion on 20 March. On the brink of Brexit and 60 days before the European elections, this event focused on questions on truth, trust and democracy that concern not only policy-makers, knowledge providers (including the EPRS and the wider expert community) and news media – but all voters in Europe and beyond.

EPRS round table discussion - Trust, truth and democracy: In a digital world, is knowledge still power ?Following a welcome by EPRS Director General, Anthony Teasdale, and a keynote speech from Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso (European Parliament Vice-President responsible for the EPRS), we were privileged to welcome Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School and author of ‘The age of surveillance capitalism‘ (2019) – who joined us via Skype from the USA – as well as Dr William Davies (Goldsmiths, University of London), author of ‘Nervous states – How feeling took over the world‘ (2018). Charles de Marcilly, Adviser at the European Political Strategy Centre also joined the discussion, which was moderated by Etienne Bassot (Director, Members’ Research Service), with Naja Bentzen as discussant.

Against the backdrop of the increasing pressure on our information space – including disinformation campaigns by state and non-state actors and the ‘dictatorship of algorithms’, which dictates the level of our knowledge, Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso called for the selection process for information to be transparent and for people to maintain a critical spirit towards the information they receive.

Europe is our hope, our vanguard

Shoshana Zuboff – who has been called one of the 11 most influential business thinkers – condensed her expertise and research in a memorable speech, in which she warned that ‘surveillance capitalism’ – big tech companies that mine and monetise our data – use our actions and behaviour as raw material for behavioural data. She highlighted that surveillance capitalism represents a model of asymmetric knowledge and a social inequality of knowledge: the companies know everything about us, but we have no insight into what they are doing. Against this backdrop, the question ‘is knowledge power?’ has never been more potent, nor more dangerous, Shuboff noted. Shuboff concluded by underlining that the EU is ‘our vanguard’: our responses to the threats of surveillance capitalism – including our anti-trust rules – have significant impact beyond Europe. On the same day, EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, fined Google €1.49 billion (1.29% of Google’s turnover in 2018) for breaching EU anti-trust rules.

The challenge of communicating in a post-truth era

EPRS round table discussion - Trust, truth and democracy: In a digital world, is knowledge still power ?
Dr Will Davies

Building on Shoshana Zuboff’s speech, Will Davies drew on his 2018 book ‘Nervous States: How Feeling took over the world‘ to identify some of the main drivers that are undermining objectivity and expertise in democracies today. Whereas facts have allowed strangers to believe each other regardless of predisposed beliefs and opinion, he said, in a post-truth society this is increasingly difficult. Looking at loss of trust in traditional centres of expert knowledge and professional judgement, Davies asserted that this has a much longer, deeper history than the focus on the last few years, but that it has been radicalised by the economic and technological upheavals of the past decade.

The EU’s response

Charles De Marcilly explained how the EU is gearing up to protect the upcoming European Parliament election in May 2019. A new EU rapid alert system to share real-time warnings, react and ensure coordination between EU capitals and Brussels has been active since March 2019. Spearheaded by the EU, the first-ever global industry Code of Practice, setting out self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation and increase transparency was agreed last September. This voluntary mechanism is a first step in shaping global norms to fight online disinformation. In addition, the EU has set up an independent European network of fact-checkers to establish common working methods, exchange best practices, achieve the broadest possible coverage across the EU, and participate in joint fact-checking and related activities. These different measures can be seen as a step towards greater resilience.

Is knowledge still power? Yes, but …

The discussion showed us that the knowledge-power-nexus is constantly evolving. The phrase ‘knowledge is power’ can mean very different things: In authoritarian systems it means controlling access to information, often violating freedom of expression, which also includes the freedom to form opinions. For surveillance capitalism, knowledge is instrumentarian power, meaning controlling access to our data, monetising our public debate to not only shape our ability to form opinions, but even modifying our behaviour and purposely breeding ignorance.

In an open, peaceful democracy, knowledge shared is power multiplied. In order to make informed, democratic choices, we need to be able to base our opinions on facts, rather than create ‘alternative facts’ that match our opinions. At the EPRS we are already working to share knowledge beyond our bubble. Thereby, we are already contributing to bridging the trust gap between informed elites and the mass population, as the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 showed. However, as our discussion illustrated, if we want to maintain shared realities, where we can trust each other, much more needs to be done. The EU’s final (= post-election) response to the behaviour of online platforms and the results of Code of Practice agreed ahead of the European elections will have an impact beyond the EU and may even set a new global standard.

Meanwhile, one major question remains: How do we reclaim the public space for debate, both political and social? How do take back the monetised information space? And where is the neutral, non-commercial space where we can have the necessary public debate on these questions?

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