Governance in the Age of Social Media

Published on 8th August 2017

Switzerland and Ghana have played an important role in the history of the internet:The World Wide Web was originally developed in Switzerland by the Briton Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Geneva. Ghana was the first African country to be connected to the internet, back in 1994.

Digitalisation and the rise of social media have had a radical impact on the economy and society. The pace of technological change is extremely high. That presents us with a challenge. For Africa it presents a big opportunity. By starting out with new technologies, barriers to development and distances can be overcome, resulting in more rapid growth. The internet and social media can lead to the spread of knowledge, as well as better understanding and greater openness.

Many of today’s challenges – such as slowing the pace of climate change, managing migration, fighting poverty and achieving the UN’s social  development goals (Agenda 2030) – can only be tackled together. Great progress has already been made in some of these areas: never has access to education, electricity or mobility been a reality for so many. Switzerland has an interest in the long-term consolidation of economic dynamism – in Africa and elsewhere. The linchpin in tackling all these challenges will be the unhindered access to information and communications technologies. They aren’t a cure all, but they can make a significant contribution to improving general livelihood and economic activity. That is why we are committed to equal access to the internet for the world’s population.

Switzerland has been active in Ghana for a number of years through its economic development cooperation programme. The programme specifically addresses middle-income countries and promotes sustainable and inclusive growth, which benefits the whole population. The Country Strategy 2017-2020, which we launched today, underlines our commitment to Ghana as one of eight priority countries for economic development cooperation. A number of projects in the framework of this strategy are in the field of digitalisation.

For example, Switzerland supports the development of platforms, which should make it easier to register a business or allow firms to access relevant laws. Another project aims to enable broad groups of the population to handling access to financial services via mobile phones. It’s interesting in this context that Ghana has now overtaken us in terms of mobile phone penetration. The latest figures show a rate of 139% in Ghana versus 135% in Switzerland. Taking into account that just 10 years ago the rate in Switzerland was more than four times higher than in Ghana, this is particularly impressive.

With the continual availability of internet access, the importance of electronic services, but also of social media has risen dramatically. The theme of today’s event is the influence of social media on governance. Switzerland and Ghana are stable democracies. But democratic stability and an open society cannot be taken for granted, they have to be defended anew under changing conditions. And we can identify inspiring, but also destabilising factors related social media:

On the one hand, exchanges via these platforms doubtless empower citizens (to gather information and to connect). Campaigns by civil society groups can be organised far more easily and cost effectively, information flows more rapidly. The financial power of business and lobbyists can be countered through crowdfunding. Social media is changing the narrative on transparency, giving voice and serving as a rallying tool for citizens to demand greater accountability. And the authorities are under closer scrutiny, but can also benefit from the information that citizens provide them with. (As an example: The city of Zurich operates an online platform that residents can use to notify the authorities of damage to the city’s infrastructure.

On the other, we are all familiar with the debate surrounding fake news. We know of reports about bots that are supposed to have been used to influence democratic elections. We also know about the risk of filter bubbles when people only connect with people who share similar views. Many of these phenomena are not really new, but social media accelerates the pace and reach.

Democracies, governments depend on citizens having access to accurate, researched information. Only with accurate facts can people form an opinion. In order to boost the chances of current developments and minimise the risks, I can see three key answers: It needs Courage and optimism; Decisive action against criminal activities and Cooperation between all stakeholders at global level.

Trust in civil society

As a liberal country, Switzerland is somewhat sceptical when it comes to state intervention. We trust that civil society and economic actors are resilient and capable of learning. To give you an example: if citizens have access to a wide range of information (from different sources) and learn to take a critical approach then we don’t have to see ‘fake news’ as a threat to democratic decision-making. What is important, however, is that the necessary instruments and measures are in place to have a correcting effect. There are newspapers and blogs that reveal ‘fake news’ stories through the quality of their sources and research. We also know that in the event of disasters, aid efforts can sometimes be organised more quickly through social media than the authorities could ever manage.

Efforts against cyber criminality

The illegal use of digital technologies is a challenge of the 21st century. Cyberspace is increasingly being misused for criminal, power-political and intelligence-gathering purposes. Attacks via digital networks on infrastructure, such as power supply and telecommunications systems, can destabilise states. International cooperation is one of the means by which Switzerland represents its foreign policy interests in the area of cyber security. The country participates in various international processes and initiatives. Cooperation in this field is very important as well as adequate penalties against cyber-crime.

Governance at global level

The internet is evolving at a very high pace, but there is a regulatory lag, where regulation, including regulation on security measures, always lags behind technology. How do we close that gap? We need to discuss what is needed. What level of societal risk are we prepared to accept? What is the right balance between empowerment and regulation?

Pooling the strengths of different stakeholders to protect infrastructure and users in order to achieve a safer internet for everyone is a way forward. All stakeholders, whether government, private sector, technical community or civil society, have skills and elements to add to a common solution, but we need rules of engagement and we need to agree on the respective roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders.

The UN Internet Governance Forum is one of the most relevant global platforms for multi-stakeholder dialogue about how to benefit from the opportunities and how to minimize risks that the Internet and the digital transformation of our societies and economies offer.

The IGF is based on an open and inclusive bottom-up process and allows everybody to participate – in person or remotely. I am proud to inform you that the Swiss government will host this year’s IGF from 18 to 21 December at the United Nations Offices in Geneva and I would like to invite Ghana to participate in the preparations as well as in the discussions at the IGF itself.

Digitalisation fills some people with enthusiasm, others with trepidation. Not everybody is an expert. Robots, drones and new technologies create winners and losers. If we are to prevent a situation in which just a few benefits, digitalisation has to be democratised – just as knowledge was democratised with the invention of printing.

Political and economic actors have the wonderful task and responsibility of showing people that they are witnessing an historic age.

The key to success is education. By investing in education, the exchange of knowledge and openness, in innovation we can give people prospects for the future – that applies to all countries, for Ghana just as much as Switzerland.

By Her Excellency Doris Leuthard

President of Switzerland.

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