Democratic public spheres have fundamentally changed with digital media. Digital platforms have emerged alongside traditional broadcasting and the press, which have marginalised the importance of the mass media. Especially the local and regional press is under extreme pressure and has hardly managed to catch up with the digital. The relevance of online platforms for public discourse has radically increased – with dangers such as "hate speech", but also with potentials for digital participation.
At the same time, only a few large digital information and communication platforms play an increasingly important role, say the authors of the Leopoldina statement "Digitalisation and Democracy". On the one hand, the statement notes that the considerable power of such providers "urgently requires legal regulation". The existing approaches to oblige platforms to delete inadmissible content and to make transparent the criteria they use to select and sort contributions "are not yet sufficient".
On the other hand, "digital participation should be expanded": a state-funded initiative, to run for at least six years, should be established to support new forms of digital participation and journalism geared towards it. The focus should be on alternative platforms and pioneer and non-profit journalism, with special attention to local and regional journalism, as the experts write.
Co-author Professor Andreas Hepp, spokesperson of the ZeMKI: "Digitisation does not only mean problems, but also opens up new opportunities, especially in the area of participation. Via digital platforms, citizens could get involved in public discourse in a very different way than before. In order to meet the current challenges, a broad-based government programme to promote participation is central. It should support research on, as well as the development and establishment of, new participatory digital platforms, as well as pioneering journalism, especially in the area of the local and regional."
Extensive catalogue of measures
The researchers recommend a total of 23 measures in their paper. They range from strengthening the digital and media literacy of the population to ensuring a civil discourse to facilitating access to the platforms' databases for research. The internet services of public broadcasting should also be strengthened and further expanded.
Professor Andreas Breiter of the ZeMKI and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of the University of Bremen, who also co-wrote the statement, particularly emphasises the measures aimed at expanding digital competencies in daycare, school and higher education to continuing education: "In particular, I consider the emphasised importance of data literacy and its promotion in school and non-school educational contexts to be an important signal for strengthening social participation."
19 authors from three countries
The paper was jointly written by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. The 19 scientists come from Germany, the Netherlands and Austria.
The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina works on important future social issues from a scientific perspective, independently of economic or political interests, communicates the results to politicians and the public and represents these issues both nationally and internationally.
The statement (in German language): https://www.leopoldina.org/publikationen/detailansicht/publication/digitalisierung-und-demokratie-2021/
Press release published by the Leopoldina (in German language): https://www.leopoldina.org/presse-1/nachrichten/stellungnahme-digitalisierung-und-demokratie/