Digital Democracy: Critical Perspectives in the Age if Big Data

Some of us attended a joint conference of the ECREA (European Communications Research and Education Association) Communication and Media Industries, on the 10th-11th November in Stockholm. About 100 people, mainly academics, researchers from NGOs and media consultants from Europe and the US, took part.

The main topics focused on the impacts of Big Data, ‘algorithmic culture’ and surveillance on democracy, civic rights, political participation and media industries. One of the most talked about words in the presentations was ‘datafication’: the digital data about our identity and online behaviour that is transformed into numerical values, and particularly, for commercialised purposes.

Prof. Helen Kennedy opened the conference with a keynote challenging the audience and stirring up some feelings about how data is used in digital media and reflected on why this matters in a democratic world. It was a great talk and I enjoyed her views on how ‘datafication’ and emotions are interconnected. In particular, how data visualisation is used in a manipulative way.

She also addressed the power of algorithm driven systems and industries shaping the online world and expressed the need of civic participation to enhance a digital democracy.

‘Changes can’t happen if there is no human agency.’ H Kennedy

Prof. Joseph Turow presented an interesting keynote about the US transformation of shopping habits from the 20th century to date and the impacts of everyday surveillance, digital tracking and targeting on people.  He showed data from US surveys addressing privacy policy issues and pointed out that people’s resignation attitude is not an accidental by-product of the 21st century.

‘Merchants are creating this world in their own interest and in response to hyper-competition.’ J Turow

A professor in the audience mentioned how challenging it is for tutors to help students overcome the current apathy and become social actors in the digital world. That powerless feeling is also shared with some of the young people from the ‘UnBias’ Youth Juries (jurors) too. However, the results we presented in this event showed that jurors want to have a say in this matter and demand algorithm transparency and more control over their data.

Five parallel sessions with three sub-sessions each made the programme broad and relevant. If forced to choose five ‘most interesting’ topics/ presentations, in no particular order, they would be:

  1. The social power of data in analytics companies (by Salla-Maaria Laaksonen).
  2. Legal implications of news personalisation, addressing five different perspectives on the right to receive information: political debate, truth finding, social cohesion, avoidance of censorship and self- development (by Sarah Eskens).
  3. Data justice: looking into data as part of an integrated social justice agenda and addressing implications of ‘datafication’ beyond individual privacy (by Lina Dencik).
  4. The impact of ubiquitous surveillance and the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act on free speech in Scotland. Educational programs have been implemented in public libraries but a call for researchers to question the ethics of ubiquitous surveillance was requested (by Lauren Smith and Nik Williams).
  5. On the margins of algorithmic culture: how organising refugee volunteering looks like in corporate social media (by Anne Kaun)

Presenting of our data about young online users’ perspectives and recommendations, was a stimulating experience, being very much in line with the main topics discussed in this conference (e.g., data usage by industries, personalisation algorithms, right to information, agency, privacy and transparency, within others). It was great to be able to network with so many researchers in the field, paving the way for future collaborations.

From the personal side, everyone I met was extremely friendly and kind, and while I had prepared for the cold nordic weather, it was actually warmer than in Nottingham! It was lovely to explore the fantastic old buildings of Gamla Stan (Old Town) and taste some local food, while witnessing Swedish football fans celebrating their victory over Italy in the World Cup qualification. All in all, I had a great time in Stockholm!

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