How We Can Build a Digital Public Sphere and Overcome Polarization and Weaponization of Information
Learning Across the Atlantic
“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth”, – these are the words of Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize along with her co-laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in recognition of their fights to defend freedom of expression.
In her Nobel Prize lecture Ressa accused US internet companies of being "biased against facts and journalists" and of using their "God-like power" to sow division, "allowing a virus of lies to infect each of us", and profiting from spreading hate.

According to Ressa, the greatest need in the world is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that's coursing through our information ecosystem.
Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize along with her co-laureate Dmitry Muratov
I was honoured to meet Maria Ressa in 2014 in New York at The Digital News Entrepreneurs Summit organized by a few US foundations that supported women journalists around the globe. This was a moment of great inspiration for me. It had been a year since I co-founded the independent online-television Hromadske (which means ‘public’) as an affordable alternative to politically controlled TV stations owned by politicians and richest men of my native country Ukraine.
Image Credits: Reuters
Image Credits: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
Technology helped us to overcome censorship: we could broadcast the 2014 Revolution of Dignity using our mobiles, broadcasting on YouTube, while Facebook and Twitter were our news wires. At that summit I listened to Ressa with admiration. I was struck by her brave decision to leave her senior position at CNN to found the online outlet Rappler in her native Philippines.

When I was studying journalism in Ukraine in the early 2000s, the dominating idea on what defines success and quality media was commercial success “like in the US”. If an outlet makes a profit – that’s enough, if something was wrong with journalism, readers wouldn’t subscribe, and sales houses wouldn’t buy airtime for their ads.
For oligarchs the media, which they subsidised, were never means of profit but tools to pursue their agenda: protect political and business interests, run election campaigns and when necessary, blackmail the government
I could understand why the free, functional media market was seen as a role model, as we had never had one. This was the time when major Ukrainian TV channels were emerging and were quickly the most popular and influential outlets in the country. However, they were created and owned by the richest politicians and businessmen who controlled MPs and whole sectors of the state economy. We called them oligarchs. For them the media, which they subsidised, were never means of profit but tools to pursue their agenda: protect political and business interests, run election campaigns and when necessary, blackmail the government with criticism or buy authorities’ favours in return for airtime and complimentary coverage.

This was the case for a few other post-Soviet countries which were semi-democratic like Moldova or Georgia. (Authoritarian countries in Central Asia or today’s Russia do not need to pretend that any competition exists, and the media are predominantly controlled by the government.)
On the surface, the media markets today in Ukraine and other post-soviet countries look like a major success. In the 1990s, Eastern Europe looked at Western media with fascination and envy, yet already in the late 2000s, Ukrainian or Russian versions of entertainment shows looked fancier and even more outlandish. Those TV empires didn’t make a profit, but were extremely rich thanks to their investors. American and European producers ran the shows and received generous payment. That's how the public got hooked: quality entertainment (talent shows and TV series) were the guise for politically biased and tabloid style news. TV ads did bring revenue, there was some turnover, yet this never covered the initial investment. It was never easy to check as the ownership was often hidden behind numerous shell companies.

In such a media environment, no independent media could even dare to compete without similar initial financial backing. While the discussion on how to define the success of the media – ratings and clicks – remained the same.

Eastern European and in particular post-Soviet states struggled because of the absence of public service media – editorially independent from the state, neutral, objective, yet funded by taxpayers. This was the model for Western Europe. TV markets in Eastern Europe were more similar to the US. Though publicly funded PBS and NPR were benchmarks of quality, their popularity and market share couldn’t be compared to the dominant role of the public broadcasters present in Scandinavia, UK, Netherlands, Germany – most of Western Europe. The lack of regulations thanks to which during Reagan’s administration, the Fairness doctrine was not applied to cable TV – explained why the US-based Fox News is more politically biased and partisan than Sky News in the UK, though both are owned by the same Murdoch Group. Despite marginal discussions on the need for public broadcasting, Ukrainian media were definitely following the American way.

In the late 2000s, with the development of the web and fragmentation of cable television in the US, I observed how little by little the commercial model of media was beginning to be questioned in the West. It was clear even for an outsider like me.

In the US, new media started to pop up like ProPublica, which produced the best investigations and won numerous Pulitzer awards, and were funded by donations as charity. Such independent media were filling a gap in carrying out time-consuming investigations that were not provided by the leading commercial newsrooms in the US. Oddly enough, the funding model for some of the greatest American journalism was similar to that of the developing world of Eastern Europe, where the best investigative journalism was funded by foundations and donors.

Mainstream players in the US started to talk more and more about the idea that news should not be pure business, but a public service. However, new challenges arise.
It’s not enough just to produce fact-based journalism, media also need to work out how to reach out to fragmented audiences, especially online.
In Europe, the answer is simple: it’s the task of the public broadcasters to reinvent themselves. In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, where public broadcasters were already dominating the market it was partially successful. Yet in countries where public service media were not that strong – and these were young European democracies – quality media could hardly compete with tabloid style news spreading disinformation, political bias.

Though in 2014 we were digital enthusiasts, in 2016 I asked permission of Maria Ressa to translate and republish in Ukrainian her investigations for Rappler, how paid trolls have helped shift public opinion on key issues, and how the internet and Facebook in particular were weaponised by President Duterte.

In 2020 Ressa was convicted of libel and she and her site were accused of reporting fake news.

Map of the conversation - visualisation from the investigation

Photo Credit: Rappler

The digital revolution has rebooted conspiracy theories and disinformation, while social media may target specific audiences with polarizing content. Audiences end up in echo chambers and consume content that serve their confirmation bias.

In Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova, where public broadcasters are weak and unpopular, or Hungary or Poland, where they were captured by the governments, we cannot purely rely on sharing facts and hoping that they land with people. Thus there is no obvious media actor who will define its role to unite people and search for the ways to build a digital democratic public sphere.
What we also see today is that simply pushing ‘quality’ content and hoping it lands in a ‘marketplace of ideas’ is not enough in an era of online fragmentation and segmented cable TV.
Furthermore, it’s not enough simply to expose malign campaigns, but it’s necessary to understand their underlying appeal and impact on audiences, by creating content that engages people more effectively around democratic values.

Arena Program
These are the issues we explore in our work together with the Arena Program - a research initiative dedicated to overcoming the challenges of disinformation and malign propaganda that endanger democracy, co-directed by Peter Pomerantsev and Anne Applebaum. Since 2021 they are based at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the USA while initial projects were conducted at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Peter Pomerantsev
Anne Applebaum
This new discussion also emerged in the US yet in academia and outside mainstream media, at the university of Austin or audience engagement start-ups in Chicago.

In 2017, as a Marshall Memorial Fellow I had the opportunity to travel outside of DC and New York and together with a cohort of young European politicians, activists, civil society actors observed how increasingly polarized the county was becoming: whether it was Texas or Georgia. I was appalled by that rural-urban divide in the US, but even more taken aback by the similarities between our media environments.

After the revolution of 2014, Ukraine was already a democracy, the state had lost its control of the media, yet it was already clear that the ‘free market’ in the media wasn’t working, as extreme partisanship and polarization became the new normal for commercial media.

Speaking in Oslo in 2021 Ressa spoke about the need to address the collapse of the advertising model for journalism, and explained why she had agreed to co-chair the International Fund for Public Interest Media, which is trying to raise money from overseas development assistance funds.
Right now, while journalism is under attack on all fronts, only 0.3% of ODA is spent on journalism. If we nudge that to 1%, we can raise $1bn a year for news organisations
Maria Ressa
Yet apart from the funds she said that we as journalists should work harder in a new environment. For me this means also to rethink how we work.

In 2021 I returned to the US and travelled from Texas to Maine, through Georgia and Alabama, observing whether the tensions were easing and people were reconnecting. Unfortunately, politicization of any single issue, be it education or vaccination showed that media including social media were tearing American society apart. Yet as a person who lives in a permanent crisis I know well: solutions are born when the problems in society are at their worst.

As an Eastern European, the US for me was first of all the place of invention, with incredibly strong and well-functioning civil society and academia. Thus, I devoted my time to finding out more about the best practices which can be applicable for my part of the world. In the 3 following articles, I address various obvious yet sometimes accidental solutions on how to practice our craft differently, how we can change our editorial agenda, and stop tearing down democracy on social media.

These articles focus on new institutions from Texas, Illinois and California that are looking at news ways of measuring the success of the media, exploring how to bring together antagonistic groups and create national dialogue on the most sensitive issues, and how to reconnect with audiences to restore trust in media in an environment where governments accuse journalists of being enemies of state. I explore the latest research on computational propaganda and how social media algorithms manufacture consensus, and what we can do about it. I also look at how we can reach beyond loyal audiences and protect facts and nurture truth, which means trust, a shared reality and the courage to deal with the existential challenges faced by public service media.

The article was prepared with the support of the Alumni Leadership Action Projects Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.