The Policy Report of the JRC on Online platforms, Political Behaviour and Decision-making.

by Michele Barbieri

On 27th October 2020, the Joint Research Centre (JRC, the European Commission’s science and knowledge service) published the policy report “Technology and Democracy. Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making”. Through a behavioural psychology perspective, an international team of experts investigates how “social media changes people’s political behaviour”, to provide policy implications to the European decision-making process.

In the “post-truth” era, online platforms play a critical role in political behaviour. Day by day contemporary society is dealing with new challenges arising by the political interaction on social media, which are still unregulated. Four key pressure points are identified: 

  • Attention economy: Attention and engagement are features sold to advertisers. Hence private companies select new attractive contents to keep the users online as long as possible. This mechanism of selection also concerns political advertising, suggesting similar contents to those alright seen, which can influence and radicalize the users’ political viewpoint; 
  • Choice architectures: online platforms design the graphic interface of social media to encourage people to constantly engage and share, thanks to pervasive behavioural techniques. It’s harder log-out than log-in. Therefore, people use digital service in exchange for their data (generally given without awareness);
  • Algorithmic content curation: it’s really hard understanding and explaining how algorithms work, also for their developers. These complexities trigger problems concerned with transparency and accountability, especially when this process increases polarised discourse or blocks alternative information;
  • Misinformation and disinformation: with mal-information, they represent the information disorders. Misinformation is a false content, but non intentionally created to cause harm. Disinformation is also a fake content, intentionally created to harm a person, social groups, organizations, institutions and countries. Mal-information is based on reality with the intent to harm a person, etc. They can produce cognitive bias on what happens in the world and influence the public and political opinion. 

The report also highlights the regulatory initiatives adopted by the European level, which are currently taking shape. Furthermore, it provides understanding and advising for policymakers about the four key points above. Examples include: forbidding microtargeting for political ads, transparency regulation on algorithms’ working, and transparency regulation on the trade of the user-generated data by the online platforms. The aim is to re-establish trust in political institutions, through tackling disinformation and misinformation to safeguard democratic processes and improving public discussion.

This policy brief is the second publication of the JRC initiative research programme “Enlightenment 2.0”, a multi-annual research programme to understand the components and trends that influence on currently political decision-making. The report follows the first output of the Enlightenment 2.0, “Understanding our political nature”.