Healthy digital public space

Enabling a safe digital
environment for public debate

Healthy digital public space

Dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies have rad­i­cal­ly changed the pub­lic space, offer­ing increased oppor­tu­ni­ties for infor­ma­tion access, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and civic par­tic­i­pa­tion. How­ev­er, exist­ing dig­i­tal plat­forms and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies also pose sig­nif­i­cant dan­gers to pub­lic debate.

One major con­cern is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of mis­in­for­ma­tion and harm­ful con­tent, such as fake news, hate speech and harass­ment, which are inten­tion­al­ly spread to inflame ten­sions or silence oppos­ing voic­es. While delib­er­ate attempts to manip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion and dis­rupt pub­lic debate are by no means new, their ease and scope have been great­ly ampli­fied by the suc­cess of social media and the use of anony­mous or fake accounts and bots.

Oth­er threats come from the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of the design and func­tion­ing of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and their broad­er ecosys­tem. These include the quest for viral­i­ty, the cre­ation of fil­ter bub­bles and echo cham­bers, and the col­lec­tion of unprece­dent­ed amounts of per­son­al data. Com­bined, these prac­tices pro­mote sen­sa­tion­al­ist and extrem­ist con­tent over trust­wor­thy infor­ma­tion, rein­force exist­ing opin­ions by lim­it­ing expo­sure to alter­na­tive view­points, and opens the door to sur­veil­lance and cen­sor­ship, as wells as increased pro­pa­gan­da and tar­get­ed polit­i­cal adver­tis­ing to sti­fle pub­lic debate.

Addi­tion­al risks arise from the sig­nif­i­cant advances in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and auto­mat­ed deci­sion-mak­ing process­es, which are expect­ed to grow even more in the com­ing years. There is a par­tic­u­lar con­cern that these tech­nolo­gies, based on high­ly com­plex algo­rithms that are lack­ing trans­paren­cy about their design and oper­a­tion, may suf­fer from invis­i­ble bias­es that could per­pet­u­ate the exclu­sion of tra­di­tion­al­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties by not giv­ing them access to cer­tain infor­ma­tion or an equal plat­form to express their opin­ions and par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic debate.

With­out appro­pri­ate safe­guards, these mutu­al­ly rein­forc­ing fac­tors cre­ate a breed­ing ground for dis­in­for­ma­tion, con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing, extrem­ist con­tent, hate speech, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and vio­lence in the dig­i­tal sphere. As increas­ing­ly wit­nessed around the world, these thriv­ing trends in turn pave the way for the rejec­tion of fact-based dia­logue, the frag­men­ta­tion and polar­iza­tion of opin­ions, and the exac­er­ba­tion of social divi­sions, both in the online and offline worlds, ulti­mate­ly under­min­ing the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of pub­lic debate and infring­ing on fun­da­men­tal rights and free­doms.

Our approach

Address­ing the threats posed by the dig­i­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic space to secure a safe dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment for pub­lic debate, requires a sys­tem approach at the grass­roots and pol­i­cy lev­el. As such, the Foun­da­tion focus­es on:

  • Empow­er­ing civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions to engage in the pub­lic and pol­i­cy debate on the future of the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies;
  • Strength­en­ing gov­er­nance, reg­u­la­tion, trans­paren­cy, and account­abil­i­ty to ensure a health­i­er and safer dig­i­tal sphere.

Our funding priorities

To enable a dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment that respects fun­da­men­tal rights and demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and is con­ducive to inclu­sive and informed pub­lic debate, we pri­or­i­tize sup­port for civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions and col­lab­o­ra­tive ini­tia­tives aim­ing to:

  • Advance knowl­edge and under­stand­ing of the social impact of the dig­i­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic sphere in order to devel­op con­crete mea­sures to coun­ter­act its neg­a­tive effects.
  • Build net­works and coali­tions, pro­vid­ing train­ing, resources, peer exchange and learn­ing, orga­ni­za­tion­al sup­port and col­lab­o­ra­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties for civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions to effec­tive­ly engage in shap­ing a health­i­er dig­i­tal pub­lic space and strength­en their voice with oth­er stake­hold­ers.
  • Pol­i­cy and advo­ca­cy work for stronger gov­er­nance and greater account­abil­i­ty in the dig­i­tal realm.
  • Sup­port strate­gic lit­i­ga­tion efforts to bring about leg­isla­tive or pol­i­cy change to bet­ter pro­tect fun­da­men­tal rights in the dig­i­tal world.

Our grantees