Experts Convene to Discuss Our Shared Responsibility to Uphold Democracy at Inaugural Media & Democracy Summit

By Shane Tan, Associate Account Executive at BerlinRosen

Last month, leading journalists, scholars and experts convened at the inaugural Media & Democracy Summit in Wilmington, Delaware to discuss the relevance, challenges, and sustainability of the media in safeguarding democracy amidst an increasingly fragmented political and social landscape. 

Organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Ithaca Initiative at the University of Delaware Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration and the incubator for Media Education and Development (iMEdD), the free and open-to-the-public gathering brought together more than 40 eminent journalists, academic experts, civic and philanthropic leaders for a wide range of keynote presentations, one-on-one conversations, and panel discussions. Speakers included CNN’s John Avlon; presidential historian Douglas Brinkley; PBS’s Margaret Hoover; Daily Show co-host Jordan Klepper; Pulitzer Center executive editor Marina Walker Guevara; and The Guardian & Observer journalist and 2019 Pulitzer finalist Carole Cadwalladr, 

The discussions looked back, contextualizing the upcoming elections with presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, and looked ahead, examining the role and use of political satire in response to misinformation and its role in democracy with comedian Jordan Klepper. The diversity of participants and programming also fostered conversations where speakers were able to examine what the media and tech sectors in the U.S. and in other nations can learn from each other—from how to cover authoritarian leaders to protecting the freedom of the press in a democracy. 

One major theme that captured the speakers’ attention across these rich conversations was the impact of social media platforms on democracy. A snapshot of these conversations is below. 

Can we trust social media companies to act responsibly?  

One topic that many speakers brought up was the failure of social media companies to take responsibility to uphold democracy in the digital age.

In a panel discussion on media ethics and responsibility in the digital age, journalist Carole Cadwalladr noted how tech platforms have failed to take responsibility over their role in atrocities across the world, such as the Rohingya genocide in Myammar. 

Initially, Facebook denied any complicity in the genocide and claimed that it was a neutral platform in Myanmar, citing efforts to remove violent and hateful content. But, an Amnesty International report has determined that Facebook wasn’t simply a passive site with insufficient content moderation but instead, “proactively amplified and promoted content” which incited violent hatred against the Rohingya.

Noting how Facebook and other tech companies have failed to take responsibility for how their platforms have caused harm, Cadwalladr warned we can’t expect these platforms to behave responsibly about how their platforms are used during elections. “The pivotal and consequential memes and narratives we’ll understand about this moment are going to be flooding every social media platform, and those platforms have no ethical or legal responsibilities in what they’re going to be telling us in this election period,” Cadwalladr warned. 

Is Regulating Big Tech Possible?

Many speakers also shared ideas on how digital and social media platforms should be regulated during the same panel discussion.

Carole Cadwalladr made the case that more stringent privacy laws are critical—if the U.S. had proper data laws, the business model that social media platforms profit from would not be possible. 

In response, Dan Froomkin, the editor of Press Watch noted that there’s also a strong anti-monopoly argument for breaking the big tech platforms up, as it can potentially put more control in the hands of people again.

We All Have a Responsibility to Teach Young People How to Be Media Literate 

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University, noted that there needs to be more pressure on the U.S. from international governments and the United Nations to regulate misinformation and white supremacist propaganda that comes from America. However, she’s skeptical of counting on tech companies to self regulate and the government to regulate them. Instead, “we need a commitment to media literacy,” she emphasized. 

“That means a fundamental degree of education about how what you consume online shapes your beliefs about human dignity, about consent, about autonomy,” she explained.

Referencing an op-ed which brought to light how commonplace non-consensual “rough sex” among college students has become: “We can trace that back to young men’s over-consumption of violent pornography and what they think constitutes pleasure. The way people think and the way people behave is changing based on what they view online,” she said. 

“That connects to democracy because we now have at least seven nationally represented surveys from the US, the UK, and other countries showing that among the top three predictors of support for and willingness to engage in political violence is sexism or misogyny. Consuming hateful, dehumanizing content shapes the way you think in ways that are having outcomes about democracy,” Miller-Idriss explained.

Yet, There is Hope for Democracy

We are at an inflection point for the state of democracy across the globe. Half of the countries in the world are suffering democratic declines—ranging from flawed elections to curtailed rights such as freedoms of expression and assembly. Many speakers expressed serious concern about the state of democracy. “Democracies are often dismantled through the levers of democracy,” Dannagal Young, a professor at the University of Delaware, reminded attendees. “Democracies are not typically taken by force. That is what happened in Nazi Germany: they used the democratic processes to change their society and government to a fascist system.” 

Looking back into the twentieth century, Cynthia Miller-Idriss pointed out that it took about 15 years for the Democratic Weimar Republic in Germany to collapse into the Nazi regime. “The U.S. has been on a list of backsliding democracies for two years now,” she noted, “and it takes an average of nine years for countries to get off that list in one direction or the other.” 

But she remains hopeful and cited empowering youth to be media literate as one key intervention for strengthening democracy, noting that such an education sets young people up with a foundational skill for democracy in the digital age, which would defuse a lot of potential political misinformation and violence.

To watch the SNF Ithaca x iMEdD Media & Democracy Summit sessions, please visit the iMEdD YouTube channel. Additional editorial content, including inspiring interviews from the Media and Democracy Summit will soon be available at