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© European Union, 2024; image source: VectorMine,
Science for Democracy

In this year of elections, research can help us to understand and nurture our democracies.

A new push for democracy

On 6 – 9 June 2024, EU citizens went to the polls in the European Elections. These were one of the world’s largest exercises in democracy in a year where more than 60 countries will hold elections, representing roughly half of the world’s population. Nevertheless, democracy is backsliding globally – which is why a key priority for the EU has been a new push for democracy, to strengthen it at home and abroad.

This year of democratic expression is an opportunity to explore the multi-faceted ways research contributes to these EU policies and strengthens democracy’s constitute parts: how to navigate the digital era and confront disinformation while bolster public trust in science and tackle societal inequalities. That is why the European Research Executive Agency (REA), alongside other departments and executive agencies, are taking a closer look at EU-funded science for democracy.

Navigating Digital Democracy: AI, the Media and Hate speech

Artificial intelligence

Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are shaping our societies at an unprecedented rate – which is why research and AI are increasingly linked. For example, the number of projects managed by REA linked to AI has increased every year.

The EITHOS project aims to develop an Identity Theft Observatory System with two key objectives: educate citizens on protection practices and assist law enforcement in investigations. The Observatory will provide these target groups with tools and educational campaigns; contributing to the prevention, detection, and investigation of identity theft-related crimes in Europe. 

The Knowledge Technologies for Democracy (KT4D) project delves into how democracy and civic engagement can thrive amidst evolving knowledge technologies. By integrating values of participatory democracy with software design, the project aims to empower communities and enhance trust in institutions and technology in multiple European cities.

Disinformation and misinformation

Disinformation is often propagated by individuals motivated by greed, hate, or power. This has serious consequences: for example, the proliferation of bots and the dissemination of false information via social media have significantly distorted public perceptions and eroded trust in reliable information sources. This undermines democratic processes.

We spoke with Dr. Maximilian Conrad, a professor and beneficiary of Horizon Europe, to learn more about how the changing status of truth is challenging liberal democracy in Europe.

In response to the dissemination of disinformation and uptake in foreign information manipulation, the Commission is strengthening its strategic communication to protect trust and EU policies. This includes through the EUvsDisinfo project. Watch the video below for more information on how to combat disinformation in an electoral context.

Two projects are supporting law enforcement agencies in the fight against disinformation campaigns, including those that target free and fair elections. Both the VIGILANT project and the FERMI project have developed platforms that address disinformation challenges on social media and that facilitate investigations. Together, the projects are protecting the European Elections from disinformation with EU funds.

The RADICALISATION project delves into the concerning trend of far-right extremist groups disseminating hate rhetoric across online platforms. With a focus on deciphering the radicalisation strategies embedded within far-right propaganda, the project sheds light on the mechanisms driving radicalisation online. This will serve to develop targeted deradicalisation and prevention initiatives to safeguard against the erosion of fundamental European values such as non-discrimination, tolerance, and equality.

The Co-Inform project addresses the threat misinformation poses to democracy; leveraging a decentralised, transparent, and community-driven approach to combat echo chambers created by AI-curated feeds on social media. By integrating automated algorithms and credibility signals from reputable fact checkers, the project provides the public with evidence-backed misinformation tagging using browser extensions, encouraging critical thinking and information literacy.

Independent Media

Towards deliberative democracy

As we approach the European Elections, voter turnout may be interpreted as a sufficient indicator of a healthy democracy.  But the quality of our democracy is also defined by how people participate in the publica arena – with a free and independent media being one of the pillars of our democracies.

However, digital technologies and the capillary penetration of new media platforms have profoundly transformed not only the media sector but also the way we access information – as well as our identity as Europeans. By providing information access to people on equal terms, encouraging public discussion in a frame of shared values, the media can foster a key aspect of a healthy democracy, called deliberative communication.

The role of the media: polarisation and identity

Over the past 20 years there has been a shift from deliberation to increasing polarisation; visible on social media but also in social interactions. The MEDIADELCOM project developed a diagnostic tool to assess the health of Europe’s media landscape, and its impact on deliberative communication. This model can be used by policymakers, media experts and journalists to assess risks and opportunities concerning deliberative communication and social cohesion in Europe.

Though an interdisciplinary approach the ReMeD project analyses data from journalists, alternative media producers and citizens in media organisations. The project will support journalists in their central role of holidng power to account and will focus on important issues such as climate change, the digitalisation of the public sphere, and the erosion of trust in democratic institutions. It will also help citizens access truthful and diverse information that supports democracy and pluralism.

Netflix and YouTube affect not only our media consumption but also our European identity. Provisional findings suggest that their international dimension, with strong American component, can be considered detrimental to nurturing a cohesive European identity. Researchers from the EUMEPLAT project are digging into the role of media platforms in fostering or dismantling this identity. Researchers from the project are pointing to alternative paths that might be possible for a stronger European identity.

Citizen engagement

Increasing public trust in science

Citizen engagement is essential for a healthy, fully flourishing democracy. While the most obvious way for citizens to participate in democratic practises is through voting – upholding truth is equally essential for peace and development. This is the role of science communication, which helps bridge the gap between scientific complexities and the general public’s understanding in order to facilitate fact-based discussions and build trust. Dr Jason Pridmore, from the COALESCE research project, told Horizon Magazine how “good story telling” is key to effectively conveying the complexities of science to the public.

Citizen Science

Citizens themselves can also be active participants in science and scientific processes. Under citizen science, they help gather empirical evidence in various research fields, including how to make cities more sustainable. This knowledge then allows scientists to conduct novel research, develop useful tools, and bring about new measures to benefit all walks of life. Both CROPS and ScienceUS are working to upscale and build European networks for citizen science activities. These will foster citizen science to achieve the goals of the five EU Missions.

Citizens in Europe are increasingly called upon to make decisions that require a clear understanding of the world that surrounds us. This is why scientists’ communication about their work and citizens’ engagement with research are important allies in fostering healthy public discourse and trust. Read a further selection of EU-funded projects “empowering citizens in the public discussion of science” and examples of citizen science projects for “societal engagement”.

Reducing inequalities

An increasing divide

The rule of law and fundamental rights are foundations of democracy - and are values on which the EU are based. However, there is a link between inequalities and declining levels of trust in the political institutions of democracy in Europe. According to a Eurobarometer survey published in 2023, 81% of the EU’s population think that income inequality is too great in their country. 73% think the EU should do more to tackle these inequalities.

Among these EU-funded projects is Fairville, which will propose pilot models of intervention, with the aim of deepening residents’ participation in existing and new democratic processes to improve disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods. These pilots will engage local actors and residents to consider inequalities related to the environment, housing and urban planning, and climate risks.

Political inequality and participatory democracy 

Inequalities manifest in multiple ways and understanding them requires an intersectional approach, taking into account identity markers such as socio-economic status, gender, age, amongst others. 

The INVOLVE project will carry out quantitative research into the complex relationships between democracy and inequalities, with the aim of designing scalable and generalisable strategies for participatory and inclusive policies. The project also focuses on how public and social services engage with vulnerable groups of citizens, especially in the age of digitalisation.  

To address gender inequality, the EU-funded FIERCE project aims to revitalize alliances between feminist movements, civil society, and political decision-makers amidst growing social inequalities. This is necessary because even though women were granted the right to vote over the last century, they remain underrepresented in politics and public life, as seen in both members of the European Parliament and national parliaments.

The project seeks to understand feminist and anti-feminist movements and their impact on institutions and policies by testing democratic innovations through partnerships with feminist NGOs and various networks.

Young people are disproportionally affected by austerity. It is also important that each new generation feels respected and appreciated by political institutions. The PROMISE project investigates the best ways to encourage young people to engage both politically and socially in European democratic society.  

The projects selected for this informative webpage received EU funding and are managed by the European Research Executive Agency (REA). REA implements Horizon Europe Custer 2 - Culture, Creativity and Inclusive Society, alongside other programmes, resulting in numerous other EU-funded projects working in this field.