NORDIS leader gives keynote at Nordic Democracy Day

NORDIS leader, professor Anja Bechmann of Aarhus University’s DATALAB, gave a keynote address at Nordic Democracy Day seminar in Hanaholmen, Finland. The headline topic was democracy and digitalisation, and the speakers addressed various aspects of the challenges technological developments pose to democracies, especially in the digital domain, from hybrid threats to the need for improved regulation of large tech companies.

The event, which took place on December 2nd, was held by the Chydenius Foundation, the foundation that awards the prize of the same name. NORDIS received the prize in 2021 for representing «a positive renewal of Nordic co-operation in order to meet the current democratic challenges», and is now one of the partners in the network organising Nordic Democracy Day, together with Hanaholmen, the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre, the Finnish innovation fund SITRA, Nordforsk, the Nordic Council of Ministers’ research organisation and the Åland Peace Institute. 

The Finnish Ambassador for Human Rights and Democracy Rauno Merisaari gave the opening keynote speech at the seminar, and his Swedish counterpart, Cecilia Ruthström-Ruin, also took the stage.

Representatives from Google and Meta were also in attendance at the seminar; other presenters and guests included Swedish philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss of the University of Stockholm and Jyrki Katainen, former Finnish Prime Minister and President of SITRA. 

Bechmann’s speech can be viewed here:

In her speech, Bechmann highlighted the challenges Nordic societies – welfare states characterised by high levels of trust – find themselves faced with due to the impact of technological developments on the public sphere and the infrastructure of democratic speech. 

As a recent example of this impact, Bechmann cited preliminary results from Tuft University’s Digital Planet group that suggest that hate speech rose on Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform. 

Bechmann also underlined the importance of research that is specific to the Nordic countries and languages. As an example, she pointed to NORDIS research carried out at her lab. There, researchers have fine-tuned emotion-detection models from large languages into small Nordic languages in order to understand the emotional tone of social media feeds coming out of the Nordics during the pandemic. As Bechmann argued, without models that are specifically trained on Nordic languages, we are blind to the potential information disorders arising online. Thus, supporting the development of Nordic language models should be a priority for policymakers.  

Bechmann’s presentation closed with an overview over NORDIS’ actions and accomplishments over the past year, as well as the challenges the consortium faces in the future. In addition to hosting Global Fact 9 in Oslo in June, NORDIS members have developed new methods for monitoring, ran several information campaigns, published policy reports, played key roles in the foundation of the European Fact-Checking Network, and published a wide range of information literacy materials.

You can read an annual report on NORDIS’ activities here.

Moreover, NORDIS member Minna Horowitz (University of Helsinki) and Bechmann herself are members of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ think tank focusing on big tech and democracy, lending NORDIS an influential voice in policy development in this area in the Nordics. 

Bechmann also participated in a SITRA-organised panel addressing the question of whether «the shift from the era of mass media to the current hybrid media environment» would strengthen democracy in the long run. Her answer was a conditional yes – if some key challenges are resolved, including our limited access to data and information about the goings-on in very large tech companies and preserving a diversity of spaces for public discourse in the face of potential monopolisation by a small number of private companies. 

Bechmann’s presentation can be found here.

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