Democracy must be healthy: Only together can we overcome the information collapse

In the past ten years, several corporations have practically taken over the entire Internet, and since there were no regulations of behavior on digital platforms, and disinformation spread uncontrollably, it is easy to conclude that we are living in an age of information chaos.

In accordance with the imperative for the survival of humanity, "Democracy must be healthy" was the name of the conference organized by Gong and the partners from the Pro-fact project: the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb, the University of Dubrovnik, the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Faktograf, and the Croatian Journalist Society, where the conference was held, and the Union of Croatian Journalists (SNH) as collaborators.

Svjetlana Knežević from Gong explained that Pro-fact was created in order to debunk disinformation about COVID-19 in Croatia, and that those involved in the project researched, analyzed and tried to understand the mechanisms of disinformation spreading, and the behavior of citizens exposed to disinformation, over the last 15 months.

Nebojša Blanuša from the FPZG described the explosion of disinformation in the world as a civilizational blow to humanity, which have been invited by the return of authoritarian regimes, global corruption, the collapse of media responsibility, and the increasingly frequent non-acceptance of election results, even in democratic countries.

"The situation with the pandemic has intensified all this, and we are now entering a real pathological state," he stated.

Professor Mirjana Tonković from FFZG and associate at Pro-fact noted that citizens had already lost faith in institutions due to all these reasons, especially in Croatia, which is why Croatia turned out to be one of the worst states in the context of conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"All the (crisis) trends of civilization are on the rise, and they all show the tendency of geometric progression. We are living in a period of collapse," said Branko Ančić from the Institute for Social Research. Ančić believes that one of the main reasons why lies have become a part of everyday life is because today people simply live more in the digital environment than in the so-called reality.

Saša Ceci from the Ruđer Bošković Institute explained how it is possible for someone in the 21st century to sincerely believe that the Earth is flat, while simultaneously properly functioning in society. "Part of the problem are journalists who treat both scientists and fraudsters the same, as well as the fact that the media are reluctant to explain to certain parts of society that they believe in nonsense," he concluded.

The president of the European Federation of Journalists (EFN) and SNH Maja Sever said that projects such as Pro-fact are extremely necessary to defend the role of journalism as guardians of democracy, concluding that "in precarious working conditions, it is very difficult for journalists to remain on the side of the truth".

HND President Hrvoje Zovko said that, in the search for partners in the fight against disinformation, it was a mistake to consider the state to be one, which he accused of abandoning the media to the market, sacrificing their educational and democratic role, and generally being closely connected to media as corporations.

On the second panel, Professor Jan Šnajder from FER identified that "the price of disinformation today is approximately zero, which was never the case before", as a problem.

Professor Mato Brautović from the University of Dubrovnik reminded that the explosion of disinformation in the digital environment is a consequence of globally prevailing economic models: "The past decade we lived in an age in which several global corporations took over the Internet. There was no regulation, no measures to limit, and in the end we were made aware by COVID-19, the stakeholders realized that we had to do something". He added that Pro-fact opened the door to multidisciplinary dealing with the topic of disinformation in Croatia, and we continue to cooperate within the Adria Digital Media Observatory (ADMO) - the regional media center for combatting disinformation, which is a part of the European network of media hubs supported by the European Commission and EDMO.

"In a situation where the profit logic of technological platforms no longer knows boundaries, and algorithmic content selections decisively influence the content offer, it is more important than ever to make media education programs relevant and critical. However, no amount of public education will be able to replace the regulation of technological platforms, an effort in which the European Union has gone the furthest so far with its Digital Services Act. In addition, publicly funded media will continue to be irreplaceable actors in informing the public, despite all the power of the platforms," ​​explained Dražen Hoffmann, head of educational programs at Gong.

"One positive thing is that today most users of digital platforms know that the order of the hits we get while using search engines is not random at all. Today, there exists an awareness that content is moderated. In addition, it is positive that it has been recently shown, spurred by the pandemic, that it is possible to force platforms to abandon profit as their only goal, and include the public interest," emphasized Professor Milica Vučković from the FPZG and a member of Pro-fact. It is good that today, if you enter COVID-19, the platforms push credible sources as the first results, such as the World Health Organization.

Ana Brakus from Faktograf found reasons for optimism, in that scientists and experts from a number of fields, from humanities to natural ones, are not giving up, despite the clearly very worrying state in which both humanity and the Earth are today.

"Young people today are deeply anxious about some things that didn't bother other young people. Let's say, climate anxiety. This information collapse doesn't depress me anymore - if we're going to do something with our destiny," she said. "The fact that the media are losers does not mean that no one profits from them," she added.

"It is necessary to adapt and face the future. We need to use research results, technology, hack algorithms, and influencers in order for campaigns to reach people," said Matej Lončarić, director and founder of Joomboos.

"Democracy must be healthy. What does that mean? For us at Gong, it means that the institutions do their work responsibly and without exception, and the citizens trust them, but not because they are gullible, but because the institutions have earned trust through their work and taking responsibility . Democracy is healthy if the media is free from pressure to report safely, responsibly and in accordance with the rules of the profession in the public interest. Democracy is healthy if the rule of law is ensured, and society is resistant to misinformation and propaganda that can result in the termination of rights and endangerment of democratic processes and institution. Democracy is healthy when citizens actively participate in the social and political life of the country - they participate in elections and referendums, they start civic initiatives to improve society," concluded Svjetlana Knežević from Gong. The conference was held within the framework of the multidisciplinary project "Pro-fact: Exposing COVID-19 disinformation narratives in Croatia through research, fact-checking and education", whose leader is Gong.

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