As Warsaw prepared for Donald Trump’s visit, a smaller, but important gathering was taking place on the outskirts of the city. The Warsaw Euro-Atlantic Summer Academy convened again this year, this time to tackle the global challenges that accompany a growing digital world. Its purpose was to allow participants to share experiences and learn from experts in the area of social media, digital economy, misinformation, and cyber security. The group was made up primarily of Eastern Europeans—and for the first time representatives of the Balkans—plus a few Americans, like me, invited to share with the group.
The shadow of Russian interference in the U.S. election looms large in American political discourse, but to the attendees, the practice is nothing new. The young scholars, NGO leaders, and civically-engaged professionals told stories familiar to many in the U.S.: family members who simply didn’t believe anything that didn’t adhere to their world view and lack of faith in government actors to do anything but accept the status quo. But in many cases, the interference is more sinister: one participant lost all of her research after a computer virus unleashed on Ukraine by Russia destroyed her computer, in addition to turning out all of the lights in her city. In another example, rumors of a computer game linked to the cause behind dozens of suicides by young people shifted the political discourse to give one government the excuse to exert more control of the internet.
The bulk of our conversation focused on the challenges of communicating meaningful political change in such a toxic environment. We discussed that the powers of social media so far have proven more effective in tearing down institutions, governance, and democracy but are, as of yet, unproven in creating meaningful political change. The sentiment of the group about the realities of advocacy in the digital age ranged from indifference to anger and resentment. In other words, even in counties that have been confronting Russia’s unrelenting assault on free media, free speech, and fact-based debate for a decade, the confusion about what to do remains.
That said, we identified a few pathways for changing the underlying dynamics and better equipping societies to adapt to this new environment.
The first key to adapting is creating an environment that celebrates critical thinking. Lecturers offered anecdotes of students who when offered the choice of final projects based on scientific data sets versus a written statement on the challenge unanimously chose data. Why? Students felt that presenting scientific data was more straightforward and clear. The written statement was a greater challenge because it required interpretation and presentation of concepts. The group spoke of a lack of comfort with critical thinking that was pervasive not just in universities, but in communities, work places, and government. Information is accepted as it is presented. No one questions why the information is being presented, what the motivation is, or what an alternative approach may be. In some cases, raising these questions aloud can result in government retribution, but even in countries where this isn’t the case, the cost of thinking critically is at best unpredictable and frightening, and at worst can lead to people being professionally discredited. A community that is not equipped to process information isn’t prepared to create change. In many cases, this is what governments and outside forces want.
The second key to adapting is education. People regularly surrender information about themselves that makes them vulnerable. Things like cell phone tracking and search histories are permitted through cookies and terms of service. We all regularly click these boxes without considering consequences. That, coupled with a lack of familiarity about news services and how social media algorithms determine what you see, leads to an information environment that is targeted at the user—but can be easily manipulated. The group put forward ideas on how to develop media literacy, much the way financial literacy is taught in schools. This becomes more challenging in some countries in the Eastern Partnership and Western Balkans where media has no credibility and is considered an agent of the government. Social media used to be a haven, and now that too is corrupted. Even if you look for information outside of your country, the suspicion remains: one participant even asked if U.S. media agencies were paid to cover Donald Trump’s tweets. Multiple people spoke of American media as being “pro-Obama.” Such comments demonstrate that even among open minded and educated communities, a lack of understanding about authenticity and ethics—not to mention underlying cultural considerations—can impact how information is perceived. Conversations like the one we had need to be the norm. It helps us to consider the source, understand motivation—good or bad—and proactively seek out alternative views. What’s currently lacking is a formula and format for learning to do that.
The third key to adaptation is in strengthening networks. Simulated networks of bots are good at pushing information, but there is no substitute for the power of human interaction. Facebook and WhatsApp groups have allowed for strong advocacy and even revolutionary action to take place. The strength of humans connecting was such a threat that the Syrian electronic army worked to hack WhatsApp. Connected journalists quickly and effectively countered Russian attempts to spread disinformation in advance of the French presidential election. And evidence abounds that Russian actors attempt to penetrate Facebook groups because the power of distribution and trust created within these groups is so strong. Creating groups and limiting access to a small group of members can create an atmosphere of trust and can lead to more fact-based discussions of information and positive political change. And of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face collaboration and the human voice. The power of one person tweeting in English from the Euromaidan allowed the world to better understand what was happening and see it through her eyes. This simple act created a network of global support and understanding.
It is no wonder that the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Polish American Freedom Foundation teamed up with the remarkable staff at the College of Europe to host this important summer workshop. What was discussed and what will come of it are direct contributions to better equip citizens on both sides of the Atlantic in adapting to a digital age. Moreover, participants leave the program with practical skills on protecting their own cyber identity to assist in their work.
Opportunities like WEASA are force multipliers in helping citizens for adapting to a new digital world. The work is daunting, but information ages have facilitated and challenged democracy for centuries. The challenge for policy makers today is speed. The changes we’re seeing are coming fast…faster than we can keep up. Governments can’t do it alone; nor should they. The private sector is at the heart of this as owners of the platforms, and NGOs and global citizen movements are empowered in ways we’ve never seen before. That will not change. Adaptation historically occurs when there’s no other choice. When it comes to digital tools and democracy, we’ve reached that point. Now, we struggle to navigate the change to ensure it reflects the will of the people, and not the will of the few.
Moira Whelan is a partner at BlueDot Strategies. She formerly served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the U.S. State Department.