EuroComm18 Opinions: K1’s Vice Chair Katrine Ninn-Grønne on Open Space – Communication, power and responsibility?

This April IABC’s EuroComm-conference returns to Copenhagen with the theme “Technology, Participation and Communication”. A thematic triad that is very effective when pushing a message, which is probably why communicators are often first movers when it comes to new tech and innovative participation practices. However, we should also be first movers when it comes to securing a responsible use of these tools. That is the discussion I hope to have at the Open Space event at EuroComm18, and I look forward to hearing your views.

Communication is a powerful tool and combined with new tech the potential outreach is enormous – and the same goes for the potential side effects. As communications professionals we are skilled in using rhetorical and manipulative tools to get our message across. We learn how to select an angle and edit content to support our objective. We apply the newest tech to widen our reach. We even ‘nudge’ our audience to encourage ‘the right’ actions, preferably without the obstacle of conscious thinking getting in the way of impact and results.

Many positives have come from this triad of communication, technology and participation; such as the democratization of knowledge and revolutions in totalitarian states. However, just as many negatives can be counted. The radio was a catalyst for the genocide in Rwanda and now cyber bullying is complicating the lives of our youths.

Communication is powerful and has enormous impact on our lives, society and future – but with power comes responsibility.

Doctors, journalists and lawyers are all professionals with far-reaching impact and they are all conscious of their responsibilities through codes guiding them in moral or complicated dilemmas.

How do communicators navigate? What is our “We’re all equal before the law”? Are we “all impact and no responsibility?” Not in my opinion. We as communicators should use our skills in critical thinking to set ethical boundaries for ourselves – especially when new tech is powering up our tool kit.

Critical Comms – Healthy Tech

The bond between communication and new technology is dynamic and in our efforts to build awareness, create engagement and expand our reach, communication professionals quickly find effective ways of harvesting the potential of this relationship. That often makes us skilled users and supporters of new technology early on. When linking communication and technology with participation, we take the alliance to new levels. We push for results and impact, and we use all tools in the box to get a response from our target group. We call on influencers such as professional athletes or successful celebrities to share their motivations among our colleagues hoping that some will rub off. We analyze and navigate ‘the algorithm’ to move potential clients towards a particular product, opinion or behavior. We ‘nudge’ citizens in traffic, at the supermarket, yes, even when going to the bathroom. In our work we view successful communication as high levels of participation, so we constantly push for more. Using all tools available. This set of values trickle into society and in a world where everybody is has a personal communication platform, we witness this dynamic or rather approach cloned hundreds of times every day.

However, new terms and phenomena such as ‘fake news’, ad fraud driven by bots, click-bait, echo chambers and bubbles show us that triad of communication, technology and participation is complex and has a potential reaching much farther than to our initial goals. So, what happens when we close our eyes to the potential risks of encouraging dynamics we do not understand?

Plenty of participation in the Umbrella-case

In January 2018 more than 1000 Danes, primarily young people under the age of 20, were called in for questioning and charged by the Danish police on a case of child pornography – an operation known as the Umbrella-case. The kids had shared a compromising sex-video of seven peers – and the outreach was enormous. Sharing at the time was easy and since everybody did it, the criminal charges came as a surprise to many of the accused. That demonstrated the importance of the operation and of stating an example.

The operation was the first of its kind in Denmark, and the reaction from several representatives of older generations’ was quite interesting. They were in disbelief that anyone would share such personal, explicit and damaging footage, summarized in: “Kids today have no regard for the consequences and have no boundaries” referring to both the seven participants and the long line of “sharers”. The blame fell on the kids – a generation that has grown up with technology as a natural part of their lives. They were brought up in a society, where parents and grandparents would take their picture and share all their milestone achievements online – never asking for their consent. Did we as a society teach them the “rules” of online participation? No, the “digital natives” were expected to figure it out on their own. We introduced our youths to new technology and unfamiliar territory, without adjusting our training, education or social norms.

Even though, the Umbrella-case is not directly related to the work of professional communicators, it points to an interesting question: Does our focus on participation eg. sharing and liking, validate and encourage a dynamic void of critical thinking and afterthought? A dynamic that can have enormous consequences for both the individual participant and the person at the center of attention. Does our work kick a negative process into motion?

Are our Values up for the Challenge?

If it does, then how do we deal with it? Up until now we have excused ourselves from responsibility by pointing to the individuals themselves to be ‘critical consumers’, and we have relied on the framework of values and guidelines that draws the contours of our society. In the western world democracy, free speech, transparency, common courtesy, legislation and ‘sense of obligation’ help us navigate. But what if this framework is being challenged as well?

We could have used Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and democratic elections as examples of a challenged framework, but I have set my eyes on ‘free speech’. Free speech is a democratic value, and any effort to limit this right is often perceived as a threat to the foundation of our society. Even to the extent where we hide behind our hard-earned freedom when making controversial statements: “I have the right to speak my mind, and that might challenge your rights”. An attempt to be considerate of a minority group may even be classified as ‘political correctness’.

This freedom of speech-argument pushes the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior, but it should not free us from respecting each other and being considerate and responsible in our statements and communication. Furthermore, one aspect is often being overlooked when debating our democratic values and ‘our democratic rights’. A representative democracy has a build-in fail-safe securing a strong voice and respect for minorities and our legal system was built upon the notion of equal rights for all – not the mob rule of the majority.

That is not the case online and demonstrating that technology may operate on a different framework of values. Online interaction is a blend of different social values and structures, and rules are limited. Free-flowing dynamics, that may result in the majority dominating a debate and the minority being “trolled” to silence. Online we are navigating a dynamic we do not entirely understand, and we should tread lightly and continuously consider how free-flowing online behavior is pushing the rights and structures, we sometimes take for granted.

An invitation to debate

So, what is my point? Well, in a world where everyone is a communicator, and no-one knows the tools and methods of tomorrow, we should be more critical of the development we are contributing to. Professional communicators are skilled in navigating and influencing changing dynamics and that gives us an edge in analyzing new tendencies.

Furthermore, we understand the communication tools that are used in promoting these tendencies. Given this position in the vanguard of innovation we as professional communicators should use our skills to identify potential threats and thereby support a healthy technological progress – and not just push a questionable development void of critical reflection.

We have a responsibility to be critical of the tools and methods we use, thereby making sure the technological development both supports and challenges our society. We should emphasize our role as ‘explainers’ and ‘sense-givers’ on complicated topics; translators free of financial, political and emotional ties; and as challengers, critics and gatekeepers.

I believe that by adding an ethical layer to our work, we will be supporting a responsible development of our profession lifting us from being peddlers of information to being defenders of meaning and understanding – building a sustainable foundation under the triad of communication, technology and participation.

But what do you think? Do you agree, that we should take on more responsibility in the technological development? If you are up for investing some time and skills in pushing a more critical and ethical communications approach, we have the perfect opening at EuroComm18! The Open Space events of day 2 gives us the venue, so it is up to you to decide if it is worth participating.

By K1’s Vice Chair Katrine Ninn-Grønne

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