At the opening of the 11th Global Media Forum, speakers stressed the importance of information and media literacy. EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said she was personally committed to the fight against disinformation.
The opening ceremony of the Global Media Forum, an international media conference hosted by Deutsche Welle, included two musical interludes: songs from a young Indian rapper and a meditative jazz performance. But the peak came at the end, with the choirs of DW and fellow public broadcaster WDR performing "Ode to Joy" from Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It was the moving end to a ceremony that could well have been called "Ode to Press Freedom."
The audience in Germany's former parliamentary chamber in Bonn listened to several speakers express their support of a free, pluralist press and its ever-growing role in the face of digitization.
Michelle Müntefering, minister of state at Germany's Federal Foreign Office, said that in times of countless online news sources, people needed trustworthy journalists to navigate the flood of information.
"We need the media as a control function, indeed as the fourth pillar of democracy," Müntefering said. To the journalists in the audience she added: "We need you more than ever."
The Global Media Forum (GMF) is a conference that brings together decision-makers and influencers from the media, civil society, government, business and academia. This year the roughly 2,300 conference participants come from more than 120 countries. For many of them, it's not the first time at the GMF.
"I am honored that you all are here," Deutsche Welle's Director General Peter Limbourg said at the opening ceremony. "It's like friends meeting again."
The motto of the 11th GMF is "Global Inequalities." The welcome address was provided by Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, where Bonn is located. Laschet said that the issue of inequality is particularly timely today, with leaders across the world trying to figure out how to maintain cohesion in the face of the digital revolution.
The benefits and challenges of digitization were among the key points also addressed by Mariya Gabriel, the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.
"The digital shift has brought about deep changes in the ways information is collected, produced and disseminated," Gabriel told the GMF audience.
The extreme increase in the quantity of news content on the internet did not bring about an increase in quality as well, Gabriel said. But she also listed a growing number of investigative journalists as a positive consequence of digitization.
'Internet logic rewards misinformation'
The internet can be extremely helpful when it comes to gathering information – but it also presents today's journalists with many challenges.
"Those who seek to spread misinformation use the latest technologies, such as bots. Their messages use algorithms," which show users on social media mostly opinions or seemingly objective news pieces that align with their convictions, State Minister Müntefering said. "The advertising logic of the internet, which rewards high numbers of clicks and viral content, boosts this effect and 'rewards' misinformation."
That's where inequality comes in again. It is not only people's access to information that varies immensely based on their home country and their income: it is also their level of media literacy. A large number of people admit they cannot determine whether information presented to them on the internet is true or not.
This, EU Commissioner Gabriel said, must change:
"Media literacy can reinforce the resilience of our societies to disinformation by enabling readers, listeners and viewers to distinguish reliable, from non-reliable sources of information."
Shared basis of information is dwindling
One factor in this media literacy trend has to do with the rise of online news sites and social media: today no two media consumers share the exact same basis of information anymore. You can simply pick and choose what interests you, and then this process is amplified by algorithms showing you more of what's deemed appealing to you.
Tom Buhrow, director general of public German broadcaster WDR, said at the GMF opening ceremony that public broadcasters were still an important baseline in that regard. Such broadcasters, he explained, provide at least some sort of shared knowledge that an informed public needs in order to understand and discuss an ever more complex world.
Over the next couple of days, GMF participants will discuss which role public broadcasters and other media can and should play in fighting information inequality and the spread of fake news.
Not in Bonn? You can check out the Global Media Forum livestream!