Davos Debate report 202418/01/2024
H/Advisors’ second annual Davos Debate took place in the Belvedere Hotel, Davos on Wednesday morning. We were hugely fortunate to have two superb guests, William Lewis, Publisher and CEO of the Washington Post and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Prime Minister of Denmark and co-chair of the Oversight Board, the organisation that oversees Meta platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
Together we discussed the critical issue of whether social media, and specifically the increasing use of AI in social media pose a threat to democracy and our democratic institutions through promoting misinformation, seeding distrust and creating and exacerbating social division.
The backdrop to the debate are a number of polls showing that support for democracy as a form of government is falling around the world, especially amongst younger people. One in particular last year by the Open Society Foundation showed that only 57% of younger people said they believed that democracy was better than other forms of government whilst 42% expressed support for military rule.
This issue is even more significant this year, when a record-breaking number of people around the world go to the polls. More than 2bn citizens will have the opportunity to vote in more than 70 national elections, including the US, the EU and the UK.
Critically each of the panellists brought a range of experience to the debate since each has worked and operated on both the traditional, analogue world and are now leaders in digital media.
In the first round of discussions we agreed that the threat is very real and needs to be addressed. But Helle argued that social media on its own could not be blamed for misinformation and distrust. “It was the traditional media that played the major part in questioning the validity of the 2020 US Presidential election,” she said, and stressing that it played its part in the events that led to the riot on Capitol Hill.
Will, who was recently appointed to his role at the Post and was previously CEO of Dow Jones and Editor of the Daily Telegraph, stressed that traditional media has not done a good well at securing readers’ trust. “We have to do a better job to show readers, especially younger readers, the lengths to which we go to ensure that our stories are true and our facts are correct. They have no easy way of knowing that our journalism is more trustworthy than anything else they read on social media.”
We then turned to the issue of regulation. Helle argued passionately for self-regulation of the type conducted by the Oversight Board and described the progress it has made since it was created in 2020. She warned that an attempt to introduce any form of government or state control would be a signal for all totalitarian regimes around the world that they could take action against free speech whenever they chose.
We debated whether and how any form of control slips over into censorship. While we agreed it was difficult to identify a clear line, “anything that is untrue and causes real harm” should be scrutinised.
After the initial discussions, we had a spirited question and answer session with the audience. Among the question was one asked by a guest from India, who wondered whether large messaging groups on platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Meta), Signal and Telegram constituted media. Helle agreed they did, agreed this was a problematic area and disclosed that the Oversight Board would be absolutely pre-read to extend its regulatory oversight to WhatsApp.
Overall it was a timely and intense session that addressed a number of the key issues facing the digital and traditional media today. I would like to thank our guests for being so generous with their time, knowledge and opinions and our guests for their participation.
Co-Chief Executive, H/Advisors