At the Denver Democracy Summit, panelists confronted democracy’s dilemmas

On Feb. 10-11, more than 30 of the world’s most thought-provoking politicians, policymakers, journalists, academics and environmentalists participated in the second annual Denver Democracy Summit, hosted by the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. The event was streamed globally and examined everything from the challenge of addressing climate change to the detrimental effects of misinformation.

How are democracy and climate change related? In a Q&A with DU’s Newsroom, Korbel Dean Fritz Mayer noted how climate change presents democracy with a challenge it is poorly equipped to address. “Responding to climate change requires that democracies persuade their publics to sacrifice for the global good and for future generations and to make very hard trade-offs quickly. And those are not things that are easy for democracies to do,” he said.

The summit’s panel discussion on misinformation highlighted a problem that has concerned experts and average citizens for many years. 

Declining trust in traditional media has created space for social media platforms to become the primary news outlets for many Americans. From claims of election fraud to misinformation about vaccines, this transition has had significant effects.

Politicized information and polarized audiences existed long before social media, said Zaid A. Zaid, head of U.S. public policy at Cloudfare, a website security company. “People are using social media, and the polarization, in some ways, is more evident. But it has been there for a long time.” 

Vivian Schiller, executive director of Aspen Digital, explained that social media platforms are not alone in struggling to combat misinformation. “Even the best news organizations—those who do pride themselves and are high quality and adhere to journalistic standards—are struggling with rising to the moment of 2022 and how they can address and report on some unprecedented kinds of forces that we’re seeing in America,” she said. 

Schiller drew a direct link between a declining prevalence of local news and the growing distrust in media. The alternative—walled-off groups on social media platforms—can foster distrust and politicization of information. “Those can create more division within the community,” Schiller says.

Financial Times correspondent Anna Nicolaou noted that as media companies try to adapt to a new age of misinformation, knowing “how to know which sources are credible” and “how to see the connection between a source, the information and biases that are apparent in most organizations” are critical steps forward.

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