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Bonn Discussion Series: Strengthening digital freedom of expression

The Internet can divide users by reinforcing biased opinions and drawing lines between the informed and those with only limited Internet access. More than ever, people need the right to digital participation.

Ringvorlesung Real Digital WeltimWandel, Foto: DW/C. Hauswedell

DW Akademie's Natascha Schwanke presents a monitoring tool that analyzed social media and SMS for clues about potential mishaps during Ghana's recent elections

Communication has never been as global, rapid or understandable as it is today. At the same time, however, disadvantaged groups have never been as excluded.

The social consequences of the digital divide were the focus of a lively discussion round, "Digital Innovation in the North and South", held on December 5, 2016 in Bonn, Germany.

The round was part of the "Welt im Wandel" ("Changing World") discussion series, organized by the University of Bonn's Forum Internationale Wissenschaft and DW Akademie.

FIW Forum Internationale Wissenschaft in Bonn, Foto: DW/C. Hauswedell

Steffen Leidel, Natascha Schwanke and DW Akademie moderator Jeanette Seiffert

Professor Dr. Bettina Schlüter of the University of Bonn and Steffen Leidel, acting head of DW Akademie's Knowledge Management and Digital Innovation department emphasized the unequal distribution of Internet access and communications technology around the globe. Despite rapid developments, large segments of society are still excluded and digital media in many countries are facing increasing government restrictions.

Given the actions of large Internet corporations wanting to spread their free services in developing countries, Leidel said it was crucial to keep an eye on potential negative consequences.

Despite common beliefs that people excluded from global knowledge transfer are those without access to the Internet, Leidel said other reasons also hindered digital participation. For many, he said, exclusion began with people being unaware of how they could benefit from digital opportunities or how they could protect themselves from falsehoods and biased opinions.

Having a say

FIW Forum Internationale Wissenschaft in Bonn, Foto: FIW Forum Internationale Wissenschaft

"Enabling a conscious use of technology"

Media and information literacy can help to counter that by helping people learn to separate fact from fiction and to move confidently in the online world and make their voices heard. As part of media development, media and information literacy aims to close the gaps and increase digital opportunities for disadvantaged groups.

Natascha Schwanke, head of DW Akademie's Africa division and responsible for media support in Africa, explained it was important to build bridges between rural regions still highly dependent on analogue technology and highly digital urban centers. She gave some examples of projects currently underway.

In Namibia, DW Akademie is supporting a countrywide network of tutors who can teach young people how to skillfully use social networks.

Alternatively, in regions where it is virtually impossible to find out even basic information because that information doesn't exist, DW Akademie's focus is to help provide information. At the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, for example, training refugees in reporting skills can help thousands of others. Knowing if a relative is alive, or knowing where to find food or clean drinking water can be life-and-death issues.

Digital participation in Africa

FIW Forum Internationale Wissenschaft in Bonn, Foto: FIW Forum Internationale Wissenschaft

Professor Dr. Bettina Schlüter outlines the historical development of communication technology

Digital technology can help people become aware of how important balanced information is and make their right to have a voice more tangible. During the recent elections in Ghana, for example, a non-governmental organization used software to monitor social media to spot potential trouble.

Panelists at the Bonn round table noted that two aspects were crucial for discussions on strengthening digital participation. First, that countries in the Global South have incredible potential for innovation, with both Schwanke and Schlüter giving examples of the creative use of simple technologies in the region.

Second, as Leidel pointed out, international agencies need to know their target groups' user habits and needs. They need to ask what platforms and tools the groups are using to communicate, for example, or what their information needs really are.

The discussion round concluded that access to information in and of itself is not enough. Participation has many aspects requiring support and strengthening, the panelists said, but it is only when all actors and users involved have a say that a conscious use of digital communication can come about - and with it, an awareness of the consequences.

 

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