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Virtual Insanity at the Forum 2000

Virtual Insanity Forum 2000 - Prague

Prague is always beautiful, but it is particularly stunning when the autumn leaves start falling and it is 25° Celsius. Last week, the annual Forum 2000 brought together activists, academics, civil society, policy-makers and politicians to discuss current issues pertaining to democracy – and the EPD team was lucky enough to attend. With the theme Recovering the Promise of 1989, this year’s forum reflected on the hopeful and tumultuous year of 1989 in light of today’s challenges to democracy. How can we renew the spirit of solidarity of 30 years ago? 

As part of the reflections on dealing with today’s challenges to democracy, EPD organised a Coffee Table Conversation on digital political advertising in Eastern Europe. The gorgeous River Hall at Zofin Palace provided the perfect location for a conversation with Jan Lipavský, Vitalii Moroz, and Miroslava Sawiris, moderated by Pavel Havlíček. 

The Czech Member of Parliament (MP) Jan Lipavský, Pirate Party, and AMO researcher Pavel Havlíček provided insights on digital political advertising and disinformation in the Czech Republic. In addition to chain emails with sensational disinformation, the Czech European Parliament elections showed a problematic lack of transparency in the financing of digital campaigns, at a time when selfie videos on Instagram prevailed over offline campaigning. 

“Political parties must be responsible for the messages they convey to the public, online and offline,” stated MP Lipavský. “Transparency is key.” However, Pavel Havlíček noted the lack of regulation of the online sphere, in which political parties can easily avoid following campaign financing rules. In the face of a lack of legal remedies provided by national law, another way by which the Pirate Party has attempted to counter disinformation and smear campaigns is by creating its own counternarratives. 

Miroslava Sawiris, Research Fellow at Globsec, likewise recognised the regulatory vacuum and resulting lack of transparency and rise in disinformation from the Slovak case. Her research on disinformation in the Slovakian Presidential election campaign showed how digital political ads may be used for disinformation and character assassination campaigns posturing as genuine political opinions. In Slovakia, political campaigning clearly moved into the digital sphere during the recent elections. 

The same observation was made in Ukraine by Vitalii Moroz, Head of New Media at Internews, Ukraine. Despite the relatively small number of 13 million Facebook users in Ukraine, stunning amounts of money were used on Facebook campaigns. He stressed the close linkages between digital political advertising, disinformation, algorithmic transparency and the business model of digital platforms.

As MP Lipavsky said, “Czech politics won’t change the way the platforms work. We should start working with our current laws to regulate digital political advertising.” Likewise, Ms Sawiris called for a European response, as single countries are unable to negotiate with the tech giants. Mr Moroz also stressed the limits of self-regulation and called for co-regulation, through constructive cooperation with the platforms. A key question there is platform liability, algorithmic transparency and legal recourse.

The Coffee Table Conversation brought up some interesting insights from Central and Eastern Europe in an ongoing discussion that is currently unfolding at the national and EU level. The EPD team took note of the different issues raised by the speakers and audience, which it will take to the EU level in an upcoming conference on digital political advertising. The session was organised within the framework of the Civitates-funded project Virtual Insanity, alongside two other upcoming national-level dialogues on the topic. More information on the project report available here or the project dedicated webpage here.