Can you explain what the World Forum for Democracy is about?
The theme of the forum is democracy - in particular, how populism can affect democracy. Speakers from all over the world are debating on a variety of aspects of populism: why and how it is emerging, if it is important to offset it and how.
The good thing about this forum is that it is gathering the opinions of people coming from very different backgrounds. Most importantly, it does not exclude the opinion of young people. There are 60 youth delegates coming from six different continents - it is not restricted to Europeans. This gives a global perspective to the debate: populism has many faces and what we see in Europe are only examples of all the possible ways populism can show itself.
Can you tell us about the lab you were participating in?
I took part in the lab: “Big data: campaigning or manipulation?”, which aimed at analyzing how big data can affect democracy. Not only private companies use (and misuse) big data, but also political parties can micro-target voters in order to influence their views and, on a bigger scale, the outcome of an election. This is indeed worrying, but the real danger is that such techniques can also be adopted by foreign countries, which might have political interests.
It’s a very controversial topic, especially because the ownership of these data is private and usually unregulated. Should there be a stricter regulation? Should we protect privacy and restrict data collection?
Is this something that is worrying young people?
Probably the very young ones are not worried enough. The problem is that once a person decides to share information, that data can no longer be easily deleted. This is an almost irreversible choice. It often happens that people make the choice of sharing data when they are very young and they haven’t developed a critical opinion on the subject. I think I was 12 when I first joined Facebook, and some embarrassing statements I shared at the time are still out there!
I believe that “media awareness” should be promoted at educational level and the matter should be regarded with the same importance as sex or civic education. Schools should play a role in this.
What was the result of your discussions during this lab?
There was no definite answer, of course. Someone argued that governments should make more pressure on companies to disclose how they use the data they collect.
The debate focused also on how to engage millennials in politics. The main speaker proposed that parties should make bigger efforts in this regard, through events more “easy to digest” for the young generation.
- Do you think young people are disengaging themselves from politics?
Yes, I think this is a reality. Nowadays, young people are not interested in the public life. It is difficult to pinpoint a specific cause, and indeed there are multiple factors. I believe that media play a big role here. They act as a “weapon of mass distraction”. People get distracted from certain matters. Furthermore, there is an overall mistrust of the political institutions. Young people don’t feel represented by the current political establishment – partly due to a generational divide between them and the ruling class. In the US, the average age of Congressmen is 58. In many countries there are laws on the minimum age to access Parliament.
It is interesting how, at the European level, young people are much less protectionist. They are also more enthusiastic about the European project. This was clear in the vote for Brexit, which was mainly driven by the older generation. I think that there are two main reasons for this. First, social media promoted cultural integration across European countries, as they made it easier to establish cross-border networks. Secondly, policies of cultural integration such as the Erasmus Programme or the European Voluntary Service have helped to promote European integration and build a sense European identity. The younger generation is more exposed to both social media and such programmes.
From your work in the field, have you noticed the rise of populism among young people?
I think that young people are less vulnerable to populism. Many people wouldn’t agree with me. Populism by definition emphasizes the role of the population in the decision-making process - whereas internationalism somehow involves a certain degree of loss of sovereignty. Thus, by definition, populism is against internationalism. That is why it is often associated with nationalism. It is clear that the younger generation is more enthusiastic about internationalism and globalization than the older generation. This is why I think that young people are less vulnerable to populism. However, this does not mean that they are immune.