Illustration: Net with money symbols and surveillance cameras in front of the flags of the USA and China

Post-national Communication Space

In view of technological developments, it can be expected that the next stage of digital development will be the "translated Internet". This is a milestone for the European public, according to our author.

A platform for Europe in public hands aims to democratise the digital space in Europe. And thus to the creation of a digital public sphere according to European values, which serves the common good and European democracy. On the platform, data privacy would be oriented to the interests of users rather than companies. The algorithms would combine personal preferences with social relevance but would not reward people who spread hatred and propaganda. The content would be supplied by partners such as media companies, theatres, universities and museums, which are currently in search of distribution methods that are more attractive than YouTube and similar channels.

Content (such as European series) would also be produced or commissioned if they are in short supply in Europe. In this post national communication space, Europe will be able to defend its democratic values against illiberal governments, which are rapidly transforming national media and cultural institutes into propaganda organs.

Watchdog of Democracy

According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Europe has seen a greater decline in press freedom than any other region. Platform Europe would provide European democracy with a watchdog to keep an eye on EU institutions and national governments alike.

Finally, it would be a powerful European player in today’s platform society, which, unlike its mostly American competitors, would first and foremost be driven by a social mission rather than a business model. Populism, disinformation and hate speech would then no longer be ways of creating value but treated as punishable violations of the legal and normative framework in which the European Union was established.

However, I am fully aware that Europe’s problems will not be solved simply by talking; decisive political action is needed. Institutional changes are also needed to create a culture of conflict in European politics so that the media views it as newsworthy. For example, there would need to be a dispute between the ‘governing majority’ and ‘opposition’ in the European Parliament, while political rather than national camps would need to face each other in the European Council. But everything is connected: political Europe cannot function without a public Europe of equal standing.

I experienced this in autumn 2013 when I was working as campaign manager for the European Green Party in the run-up to the 2014 European elections. In the European Parliament I represented my candidate in the negotiations between parliament, the parties and the media on organising the first European TV debate. This was the first time that the European parties had nominated candidates for the office of President of the EU Commission. The fact that the results of the European elections were now more closely connected to the question of who filled the most important post in the EU was a step forward for democracy. In Brussels, we hoped that this increased voter influence and personalisation would make the European elections more attractive and lead to a higher turnout.

A political Europe cannot function without a public Europe of equal standing.

Unfortunately, we failed to convince the national TV stations to include this piece of EU history in their main programming. Instead, the debate was broadcast by special interest channels such as Phoenix, the BBC Parliamentary Channel and France24. The sobering result was that by the time election day came around, very few voters knew who was standing for the EU presidency – just 5% of the electorate in the Czech Republic and the UK. Worse still, most people didn’t realise that their vote now had much more influence on who became the next president of the EU Commission.

However, it mobilised the few voters who knew about it, and a poll showed that one of the reasons they voted was the candidates themselves. Once again, it was a case of could have, should have. The time of missed chances and unused windows of opportunity must now be over – otherwise the EU is over. Over the last few years, the truism that every cloud has a single lining certainly hasn’t applied to Europe. Perhaps this is Europe’s last chance, by providing a space for discussion, constructive debate, empathy, commonality, a place where the positives and negatives of the European Union can be aired. Platform Europe is this opportunity.

One thing is clear: in today’s Europe, there are two spheres where its citizens lack sovereignty – the political and the digital. In a democracy, they act as the pillars of sovereignty, but the power to make decisions is subject to conditions. Only someone who is adequately informed, has a grasp of the various facets of an issue, understands political responsibilities and can name the actors involved is in a position to make independent, autonomous decisions – such as at the ballot box. These conditions are not currently being met in the decision-making processes of European politics.

This has less to do with people’s lack of interest than with the absence of a European discourse. In the national discourse, the language revolves around ‘us’ and ‘them’: Europe has not become part of our home, of ‘us’. As a result, the public debate focuses on the national interest, which is often the only yardstick used for assessing European policy.

In today’s Europe, there are two spheres where its citizens lack sovereignty – the political and the digital.

The national bubbles exclude the plurality of European voices and the European common good as an analytical framework. For European democracy, this means that civil society lacks an adequate public sphere of influence on EU policies, while EU institutions are unable to link decisions back to citizens within a public framework.

Instead, the national public spheres simply ignore or delegitimise the legitimate decisions made by EU institutions. These national bubbles are the first structural advantage that nationalist populists currently possess in Europe’s public spheres. Their second advantage relates to the second sphere where Europe suffers a lack of sovereignty: the internet. The digital space is dominated by private American platforms whose existence relies on the collection and monetisation of personal data, and whose content is subject to the rules of the attention economy – which are not always compatible with democracy.

Provocation brings publicity. Users who do not want to pay by providing their personal data are excluded from key areas of the platform economy. Things are much harder for providers who finance themselves via fees rather than data and value objectivity above sensationalism.

The prevailing conditions in the digital sphere mean that citizens are unable to control their own data and European democracy is unable to organise a democratic discourse.

Nationalist populists are well-versed in how to make the most of attention algorithms. Their messages have such an enormous reach precisely because they break with democratic conventions, provoke emotional responses (both positive and negative) and thus meet the algorithms’ key criterion of relevance. They use private user data to personalise their election campaigns through ‘cognitive warfare’, even if this data is obtained illegally by companies like Cambridge Analytica.

The second structural advantage that the propagandistic nationalists and populists have in today’s public sphere is the way the digital space is organised according to criteria that separate commodified attention from the culture of democratic discourse. Platform Europe should be a publicly funded communication space set up in line with democratic and European standards. It would enable Europeans to conduct a supranational discussion about common concerns, something that is only made possible by a vibrant European democracy. It would enable European citizens to acquire both political and digital sovereignty. A European public sphere would allow EU institutions to be held accountable and civil society voices to be heard. Similarly, citizens would no longer be lulled by nationalist propaganda, because national governments would no longer be able to shift the political responsibility for uncomfortable decisions onto European institutions.

A European ‘We’

In the Member States, people could revise their stereotypical images of foreigners and their inflated view of themselves and base their opinions on European pluralism. They would feel part of a European ‘We’ through the presentation of a common European Way of Life and develop a European identity that is free of nationalist exploitation. Europeans can only exercise their sovereignty in this kind of arena, where Europeans can actually live their EU citizenship in a democratic fashion.

By asserting European values in every area of this digital infrastructure, Platform Europe will help people to achieve greater digital sovereignty. It is a question of setting a European standard for the organisation of the digital public sphere.

The platform would have to ensure the transparency of its algorithms, identify bots, and work in a way that is sparing of data rather than devouring it. It would take responsibility for the content and opinions that it presents, ensure its independence from advertising and provide maximum data protection and privacy.

The platform’s users would have full control over their data, which could mean that it would receive no data at all. But it could also mean that users would be able to personalise the content that they see and how it is presented on the platform. The main thing is that the decision would be made by the user, rather than the platform operator’s business model. Europe has already lost valuable time in establishing a European standard for the digital space. Now it has to clean up from the rear.

To put it simply, there is an American and a Chinese internet, and to some extent a Russian one, but there is no European internet. The American and Chinese internet both have their own platform ecosystems. The Chinese counterparts to Facebook/Whats-App, Amazon and Google are WeChat/Qzone, Alibaba and Baidu. But WeChat isn’t merely a Chinese version of Facebook. Behind the American and Chinese internet lie two completely different value systems: this is where data capitalism and data authoritarianism face off.

In the American model, the data is primarily used to increase corporate profits, while in the Chinese model it serves to expand the surveillance state.

In the American model, the data is primarily used to increase corporate profits, while in the Chinese model it serves to expand the surveillance state. It’s true that some other countries use Facebook as a means of surveillance, and Chinese networks are also operated by profit-oriented corporations, but the Chinese platforms cannot operate outside the state’s surveillance machinery. For example, WeChat’s terms of use state that the operator, Tencet, will pass on user data to the state upon a simple request by a government body. Amnesty International’s data privacy check gives WeChat a score of 0 out of 100.

And Tencet is expanding: since November 2017 it has been possible to use the WeChat payment system in shops at Munich airport. If Europeans decide to pay with this app, the Chinese state could receive a copy of their shopping list. This means that the expansion of the Chinese internet is also an expansion of China’s surveillance network.

Communication spaces are also part of the global struggle between value systems. For years, international TV stations such as CNN, RT, CCTV and Al Jazeera have been competing to impose their own particular narrative. Particularly in the case of state-funded stations, this is based on the understanding that communication is not just communication about politics, but that communication is politics. This can be clearly seen in the spread of disinformation. The fictitious rape of 13-year-old Lisa by refugees in Germany was reported as fact by Russia’s state media and triggered demonstrations in Germany.

A Political Tool

If disinformation is used as a political tool, then this should apply even more to information. This means that Europe has to be a much stronger player in the global contest for information. If the European model of democracy is to survive, it needs public spaces that, both externally and internally, can resist anti-democratic attempts at destabilisation and ensure a discourse conducted in line with democratic standards. Europe has to create these public spheres.

Of course, a European public sphere cannot single-handedly resolve all the deficits of European democracy. But I maintain that there will never be a mature European democracy unless there is a European public sphere. However, the EU’s political decision-making processes also have to change in such a way that they become the subject of public debate. This requires a stronger culture of conflict in both the European Council and Parliament.

Perhaps this is Europe’s last chance, by providing a space for discussion, constructive debate, empathy, commonality, a place where the positives and negatives of the European Union can be aired. Platform Europe is this opportunity.

It is also high time for more transparency about the position of individual governments in the Council. This is not currently documented, which makes it difficult to hold governments accountable. In addition, when uncomfortable decisions have to be made, the Council is all too happy to refuse to make a decision at all, after which the burden of decision falls legally on the EU Commission. Jean-Claude Juncker has, quite rightly, made repeated complaints about how the buck was passed during his time as President of the EU Commission. Citizens also need real opportunities to participate in order to fuel their interest in EU politics.

These shortcomings cannot be remedied by creating a space for communication, but must be addressed institutionally, if necessary by treaty change. Europe still has a long way to go in this respect. But it requires the people of Europe and our EU community to take this step together. The starting point is called Platform Europe.

About the Author
Johannes Hillje
Political Consultant

Johannes Hillje, born 1985, is a German political consultant and author. He is a policy fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum, a Berlinbased think tank. In 2017 Hillje published Propaganda 4.0, followed in 2019 by his second book Plattform Europe (currently available in German only), upon which this article is based.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.