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The Nordic democratic debate in the age of Big Tech

Today, online platforms
In the following report, we focus specifically on the social media platforms of Big Tech that are “very large online platforms” in the sense of the Digital Services Act. Very large online platforms according to the Digital Services Act are online platforms “which have a number of average monthly active recipients of the service in the Union equal to or higher than 45 million” (Digital Services Act, article 33).
such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter provide channels for citizen participation in democracy and public debate. These platforms did not exist 20 years ago, but today they allow people to connect across the world and new communities to arise. At their finest, they reduce distances between people and give everybody the chance to make their voices heard. Aside from creating forums for interacting and exchanging opinions, online platforms and social media have become popular sources of news in the Nordic countries
Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Robertson, C.T., Eddy, K. & Nielsen, R.K. (2022). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022. Retrieved from Reuters Institute: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/Digital_News-Report_2022.pdf
. Consequently, online platforms are both important infrastructure for following and participating in public debate.

Big Tech threatens to undermine open democratic debate

However, online platforms and, especially, their algorithmic functions for recommending content may also cause serious harm to our democracies and public debate if not regulated properly. Online debates are often hateful or offensive and can threaten the freedom of speech by causing some groups in society to withdraw entirely from public debate
Zuleta, L. & Laursen, S. K. (2019). Demokratisk Deltagelse på Facebook. Retrieved from Institut for Menneskerettigheder: https://menneskeret.dk/sites/menneskeret.dk/files/04_april_19/Rapport%20om%20demokratisk%20deltagelse.pdf
Zuleta, L., Steffensen, T., Bahat, Y. & Kroustrup, J. (2022). Den offentlige debat på Facebook. En undersøgelse af danskernes debatadfærd. Retrieved from Institut for Menneskerettigheder: https://menneskeret.dk/sites/menneskeret.dk/files/media/document/Den%20offentlige%20debat%20p%C3%A5%20Facebook%2C%20analysenotat%2C%20maj%202022_0.pdf
. Particularly young people and women seem to avoid online debates today due to the hateful language in online debates
Zuleta, L. & Laursen, S. K. (2019). Demokratisk Deltagelse på Facebook. Retrieved from Institut for Menneskerettigheder: https://menneskeret.dk/sites/menneskeret.dk/files/04_april_19/Rapport%20om%20demokratisk%20deltagelse.pdf
Medietilsynet (2023). Digitale dilemmaer – en undersøkelse om barns debut på mobil og sosiale medier. Retrieved from Medietilsynet: https://www.medietilsynet.no/globalassets/publikasjoner/barn-og-medier-undersokelser/2022/230206_digitale-dilemmaer.pdf
  • The spread of hateful content, mis- and disinformation hinders open, transparent and informed public debate.
  • The easy production and spread of false information give favourable terms to creators of content aimed to manipulate and undermine democracy. The large amounts of data stored by online platforms may further be abused to microtarget manipulative content to users.
  • Algorithms may promote divisive and polarising content that harms democratic debate.
  • Systems for taking down illegal or hateful content are less efficient in smaller languages such as the Nordics.
  • The lack of transparency from the online platforms regarding their algorithms and data collection prevents effective oversight of societal consequences.
Another challenge is the spread of mis- and disinformation online that threatens transparent and factual democratic debate and may fuel polarisation
Benkler, Y., Faris, R. & Roberts, H. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. Network Propaganda (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Osmundsen, M., Bor, A., Vahlstrup, P. B., Bechmann, A., & Petersen, M. B. (2021). Partisan Polarization Is the Primary Psychological Motivation behind Political Fake News Sharing on Twitter. American Political Science Review, 115(3), 999-1015. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055421000290
Altay, S., Berriche, M., & Acerbi, A. (2023). Misinformation on Misinformation: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges. Social Media + Society, 9(1), 20563051221150412. https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051221150412
. Factual debates and credible sources are being further eroded due to the accelerated prevalence and easy production of false and biased information online
Vosoughi, S., Roy, D. & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science 359: 1146–1151.
. Ultimately, the scale has tipped in favour of creators of content aimed to manipulate and undermine democracy.
Social media are typically available to their users free of charge. Platforms profit from selling advertisements and, therefore, seek to maximise the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Rather than focusing on supporting and promoting open democratic debates, they seek to keep the attention of the users by offering engaging and curated content to each user, moderated and recommended based on parameters that are unclear to both the users and the public. As a result, misinformation and disinformation, as well as other polarizing or harmful content, thrive on online platforms since they encourage user engagement by evoking strong feelings such as anger
Charquero-Ballester, M., Walter, J. G., Nissen, I. A. & Bechmann, A. (2021). Different types of COVID-19 misinformation have different emotional valence on Twitter. Big Data Soc. 8, 20539517211041280.
Vosoughi, S., Roy, D. & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science 359: 1146–1151.
Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E. & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111, 8788–8790.
Horwitz, J. & Seetharaman, D. (26. maj 2020). Facebook Executves Shut Down Eforts to Make the Site Less Divisive.  Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-it-encourages-division-top-executives-nixed-solutions-11590507499
. Consequently, such content may spread faster than more moderate and factual content.
This challenge is a global one, but more pressing in small language areas such as the Nordic region. Online platforms rely heavily on automated moderation to take down content that is illegal or in violation of their terms and conditions. Since such moderation tools are developed primarily for content in English, this leads to less effective moderation in small languages, and may increase the proportion of harmful content
Ytringsfrihetskommisjonen (2022). En åpen og opplyst offentlig samtale. Ytringsfrihetskommisjonens utredning. Retrieved from Regjeringen.no: https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/753af2a75c21435795cd21bc86faeb2d/no/pdfs/nou202220220009000dddpdfs.pdf
Pedersen, K & Oehlenschlâger, M. (5. juli 2022). Danskerne er særligt udsatte for hadtale online, fordi techgiganterne ikke taler dansk. Retrieved from Information: https://www.information.dk/debat/2022/07/danskerne-saerligt-udsatte-hadtale-online-fordi-techgiganterne-taler-dansk?lst_frnt
. Added to this challenge, the principles of content moderation are global, which means that they are formulated in different cultural contexts than the Nordic. Accordingly, Nordic historical references, values and satire might get lost in the moderation process, and the wrong content may be taken down.
While these challenges endanger the democracies of today, they are even more pressing for the democracies of tomorrow. They also affect the future citizens of the Nordic countries – today’s children and youth – whose journey towards democratic citizenship takes place in an environment of misinformation and hateful speech. For malignant actors who wish to manipulate public opinion, the youth and children are especially vulnerable since they are the most digitally active across the population
Slots- og Kulturstyrelsen (2020). Mediernes udvikling i Danmark: Sociale medier 2020 - Brug, indhold og relationer.  Retrieved from Kulturministeriet: https://mediernesudvikling.kum.dk/fleadmin/user_upload/dokumenter/medier/Mediernes_udvikling/2019/Specialrapporter/Sociale_medier_indhold/Sociale_medier_-_brug__indhold_og_relatoner.pdf
Medietilsynet (2022). Unges erfaringer med hatefulle ytringer. Retrieved from Medietilsynet: https://www.medietilsynet.no/globalassets/publikasjoner/kritisk-medieforstaelse/2022-rapport-hatefulle-ytringer.pdf
. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that the heavy use of social media and other digital platforms by children and youth has consequences on their general well-being. This needs to be followed closely. 
The platforms collect enormous amounts of information about their users – from self-reported data to behavioural data, from information on your age to information on your health. Such information allows online platforms to micro-target content to individuals based on their interests but may also be abused for manipulative purposes, e.g., by targeting content and advertisements specifically to certain individuals in order to retain attention and maximise engagement.
The lack of transparency and accountability from online platforms regarding what citizens are exposed to in the algorithmic user feeds, their moderation practices and information on what they do with our data hampers effective public oversight
Bruns, A. (April 25 2018). Facebook shuts the gate after the horse has bolted, and hurts real research in the process. Retrieved from Internet Policy Review: https://policyreview.info/articles/news/facebook-shuts-gate-after-horse-has-bolted-and-hurts-real-research-process/786
. This is highly problematic since online platforms today constitute a democratic infrastructure that plays a central role in our social life and society at large. Consequently, we do not know nearly enough about how Big Tech and their platforms influence our society and our democratic debates, particularly how they impact our children and young people
European Digital Media Observatory (2022). Report of the European Digital Media Observatory’s Working Group on Platform-to-Researcher Data Access. Retrieved from EDMO: https://edmoprod.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Report-of-the-European-Digital-Media-Observatorys-Working-Group-on-Platform-to-Researcher-Data-Access-2022.pdf
Finally, the rapid development of the tech industry and its corresponding influence on our lives for a long time has left these companies with almost no regulatory boundaries. Increasingly, regulation is catching up, and societies are deciding to set the rules for the platforms and not the other way around. Regulation, however, have a hard time keeping up with the intense and constant development of technological opportunities, and there are plenty of areas where democracies need to do more and demand more from online platforms.
Recently, the EU adopted the Digital Services Act, which sets up new rules for online platforms, including very large online platforms and search engines such as Facebook, YouTube and Google. This new regulation will, among others, require such platforms to make annual assessments of systemic risks of their platforms, including the negative impact of their platforms on society at large, democracy and the well-being of users. Importantly, they will be required to take action to mitigate such harm. This new legislation will, together with other new EU legislation – i.e., the AI Act, the European Media Freedom Act and the Digital Markets Act – provide a framework for any initiatives to come, whether European, national or Nordic.

A shared Nordic perspective

The Nordic countries have strong cultural and structural similarities. We share universal welfare states, strong democratic traditions, a high degree of digitalisation and social media usage, high trust levels, strong public service broadcasters and national newspapers, and high educational levels
Hallin, D. C. & Mancini, P. Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Syvertsen, T., Enli, G., Mjøs, O. J. & Moe, H. The Media Welfare State: Nordic Media in the Digital Era. (University of Michigan Press, 2014). doi: https://doi.org10.2307/j.ctv65swsg
Ravn-Højgaard, S., Jóhannsdóttir, V., Karlsson, R., Olavson, R., & í Skorini, H. (2021). Particularities of media systems in the West Nordic countries. Nordicom Review, 42(S2), 102–123. https://doi.org/10.2478/nor-2021-0020
. These are characteristics of the Nordic countries that we cherish and wish to actively work to protect – even when the world is changing, and our democracies are increasingly digitalised.
In a global context, the individual Nordic countries are both rather small in terms of population and language making the Nordics more vulnerable despite their generally high media literacy and resilience against manipulation
Humprecht, E., Esser, F., & Van Aelst, P. (2020). Resilience to Online Disinformation: A Framework for Cross-National Comparative Research. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 25(3), 493–516. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161219900126
. To a large degree, we share the same challenges and concerns when it comes to standing up to Big Tech and protecting our democracies.
This shared background and the tradition of Nordic cooperation provide a strong starting point for a joint approach to strengthening our digital democracy in light of the rapid technological development and the rise of Big Tech. Together, the Nordic countries should be a driver for a more forceful and transparent approach when it comes to how we allow Big Tech to influence our societies and democracies in the Nordics, in Europe and globally.
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