Democrazy –Democracy in Crisis?, 7 June 2017

"Check against delivery"


Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you very much for inviting me to join you today.

It's a great honour to take part in the launch of this new alliance – ALL For Democracy – created to stand up for democracy in Europe. Because democracy makes Europe what it is.

Of course, it was the Greeks who invented democracy, right here in Europe. And we all tend to think our own ideas are the best. So perhaps that's why democracy matters so much to Europeans.

But I find there’s more to it than that.

Europe today is the best place to live in history – especially if you're a woman. But it hasn't always been that way. We know, from the painful experiences of the last century, how fragile democracy can be – and how much it costs to lose it.

We understand that democracy is about much more than just going to cast a vote every few years. It's a whole way of life. From the moment, in the classroom, when we first learn to resolve our disputes through talking, not fighting. To the time when, as citizens, we stand up to insist that our leaders serve us, not themselves.

Democracy in a social media age

But for that culture to survive, it has to adapt. To new ways of living and interacting with each other.

Ten years ago, Facebook had only just opened up to users who weren't students. Twitter had only been around for a year. Now, Facebook has nearly two billion users a month. Twitter’s three hundred million users include the President of the United States.

And these changes have been so fast that I'm not sure our democracy has caught up.

That doesn't mean that social media has to be bad for democracy. Networks like Facebook and Twitter can help to get people involved.

When someone adds a note on her profile that says, “I've voted”, that can encourage her friends to go out and vote too.

When people want to build a movement to stand up for their rights, social media can bring them together. The women’s marches earlier this year began with a Facebook page. They ended up bringing out some 5 million women around the world, to insist on their right to be treated as equal human beings.

And for people like me, who want to communicate directly with the people that we serve, social media has made that possible in an entirely new way.

Democracy and debate

But social media can also challenge the basic principles of democratic life.

Democracy has developed a lot in two and a half thousand years. For one thing, women have the vote – though only for the last hundred of those years. These days, if you want to ostracise someone, you don't have to expel them from the city – all you need to do is unfriend them on Facebook.

But one thing hasn't changed.

The citizens of Athens didn't go to the assembly just to vote. They went there to debate. To hear everyone’s views, so they could make the right decision for the city. And in a parliament or a public rally, in a newspaper or on TV, democracy still depends on free and open debate for those who choose to engage.

That's where, if we’re not careful, social media could let us down.

Because despite all the connections that it allows us to make, social media can also lock us up in our own worlds. No one knows what I see on my social media timeline but me – and the social media company itself. And we can't have an open debate from inside separate worlds.

Social media algorithms and democracy

In the US, nearly two thirds of adults get their news from social media. Here in Europe, more than a fifth say it's their main source of news. News which is the basis of our democratic debates. And yet most of us aren't really in control of the information that we see.

A social network like Facebook gets more than 50 million status updates a day. It makes sense to turn to algorithms to help us sift through that information.

The trouble is, it's very hard to know how an algorithm has made its decision. And the things it chooses to hide might as well never have existed.

So even if an algorithm is just designed to show us things we’ve taken an interest in before, it can still limit our horizons without us even noticing. It can get in the way of seeing new ideas, or looking at old ones in different ways. It can build up our prejudices until they seem to be, not just opinions, but a natural part of how the world works.

That isn't just about news stories that aren't true. It's about only seeing the facts that match the ideas we already have. About losing track of the fact that other views even exist. Because we can't have a democratic debate if we only hear selected views.

Targeted advertising and democracy

It's even more troubling if that debate starts to happen in private.

Lately, politicians have been learning a lesson that business has known for a long time. The information that social media companies collect about their users can transform the way you advertise. It can help you put your message in front of exactly the people who are likely to buy it.

But when you apply that to politics, it could undermine our democracy.

Because if political ads only appear on the timelines of certain voters, then how can we all debate the issues that they raise? How can other parties and the media do their job of challenging those claims? How can we even know what mandate an election has given, if the promises that voters relied on were made in private?

I don't imagine that these issues are impossible to solve. They certainly don't mean we need to give up on social media and all its benefits.

But we do need to defend the basics of our democratic life. And few of those things are more important than free and open debate.

Conclusion: Making a commitment to democracy

Learning to deal with social media won't be easy. But then, democracy isn't easy. It takes a commitment from us all. In every part of our democracy – local, national, and European.

A commitment from politicians, to know the limits of their power. To fight hard for what they believe in, without compromising on the truth.

A commitment from voters, to do the most important job in a democracy – turning up to vote.

And a commitment from everyone who knows the importance of democracy. To work together, beyond their different views on policy, to defend a democratic way of life.

These may be challenging times for democracy around the world. But when I look around me, I don't see despair. I see that those commitments are strong.

I see people from all walks of life asking, what I can do to stand up for democracy?

I see organisations like this one, bringing together different groups from different countries – business groups, trade unions, NGOs. Not just to affirm their support for democracy. But to take real action to defend a democratic way of life.

So standing here with you today gives me confidence, that the future of our democracy is in good hands.

Democracy will only die if we stop fighting for it. I know you won't let that happen.

Thank you.