VoxEurop: Last October, the European College of Commissioners appointed you as special adviser to the vice-president of the European Commission, with the task of providing “strategic advice on the opportunities and challenges related to the use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain in the EU, with a focus on the media sector”. What is the context of your assignment, and in what direction will you lead this strategic mission? Do you already have an idea of the opportunities and challenges facing the media? What is the role of artificial intelligence (AI)?

Guillaume Klossa: Our liberal democratic system was founded on a war for a pluralistic and independent media which allows for the development of even-tempered societies and guarantees quality public debate. The media has played and continues to play a major role in guaranteeing the cohesion of our societies and the quality of public debate, but this role is threatened a little more each day by the power of social networks and digital platforms which attract the bulk of the advertising which used to finance our media. It’s in this context that “fake news” flourishes, and more broadly, that misinformation of an unprecedented amplitude, possibly supported by foreign powers, develops.

At the same time, traditional media is transforming, tasked with becoming true “data companies” like the Financial Times or the Washington Post, which use data to know their audience, enrich their content, facilitate the work of journalists via informational surveillance, verification of sources and automated production of low value-added information, personalise content and the sharing of that content, and of course boast of this knowledge of their audience in order to strengthen their attractiveness to advertisers. For all these developments, artificial intelligence is central. It’s also a tool that can be used to identify and combat fake news. As far as Blockchain is concerned, it has many uses for the media sector that we’re in the process of establishing, from the certification of archives and news, to micropayments for articles.

The goal of the mission entrusted to me by the European Commission is to see how to get the best out of these technologies in order to strengthen the media sector – in the broad sense of the term (audio-visual, newspapers, platforms, social networks, games...) – in Europe, and significantly strengthen the sector’s economic sustainability, but also contribute to the quality and diversity of information and content and, in the end, fight against the fragmentation of our societies. I’m also convinced that these technologies can contribute to the creation of a truly public European space, thanks especially to considerable progress in automatic translation.

You’ve just published Media for good (Débats Publics, 2019), an essay prefaced by Roberto Saviano and devoted to the emergence of new types of mass media which are personalised, and in their own way, collaborative and participative. How did the idea come to you, and what is the goal and public for this media, as well as its economic model?

Media for Good is a reflection on what the media of tomorrow should look like in a digital world, where text, video and sound converge, where algorithms play a considerable role, where the media’s knowledge of every user becomes more and more detailed, where personalised recommendations become the rule, where content can be enriched. All large media outlets are to become what I call media for good, which stimulate both individual and collective intelligence, and are accountable to strong ethical and professional rules. I’ve just returned from London where I met the teams working for the Guardian. They’re preparing the mass media of the future, personalised and globalised at the same time.

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The idea of Media For Good came to me during the five years I spent at the European Broadcasting Union, (EBU-Eurovision), where since 2014 we’ve been thinking prospectively about what public service broadcasting should be in the future, with strategists from major public media outlets like the BBC, RAI, France Télévisions, the Swedish national radio (SR), and RTBF and VRT from Belgium. I also piloted a European industrial initiative, the Big Data initiative, with the aim of preparing for the transformation of broadcasters into “data companies”, and taking full advantage of data technology and the potential of artificial intelligence.

We tried to answer four questions: how to create trust between the media and its users in the era of Big Data and AI? How to improve the quality, relevance, creativity and impact of content by means of these technologies? How to develop recommendation and personalisation algorithms compatible with the values of European public services, which are: quality, diversity of content, transparency, universality – meaning the ability to reach the whole public and thereby combat the fragmentation of society and prevent audiences from shutting themselves up in their personal preferences…? How to measure audience figures as digital platforms multiply?

The public described in Media For Good is the same as the current public. But the business model needs to evolve. Advertising is currently swept up by the big American platforms – the so-called GAFA – and the task is to recapture a portion of this by creating alternative technologies, putting in place common distribution platforms, and allowing economic value, but also the data of users, to remain in Europe. Cooperation should become the rule. The media of the future needs to develop cooperative links in R&D, distribution and production. This is a major mutation facing a world where everyone has stayed and developed in their own corner for far too long.

Does this essentially concern public service media? Is there, to your knowledge, an industrial strategy in Europe for private media?

The media of the future I envisage is as relevant to public service media as commercial media, even if each has its own specificities. Numerous groups like the Guardian, Schibsted, Planeta, Axel Springer, and many others in Europe, are asking themselves these strategic questions. Properly speaking, there is no European industrial strategy, for either the public or private sphere, at least for the moment. On the other hand, the European Union has encouraged numerous initiatives, such as MediaRoad, a pilot project aiming to accelerate digital innovation and anticipate what a public-private European innovation ecosystem for the media would look like, with three objectives: defining a common vision of the strategic priorities for the sector, especially in R&D, accelerating the sharing of innovations and better connecting media companies and startups, and developing a strong culture of anticipation and innovation in the sector.

Can we still expect the media to play the role of democracy’s watchdog, while trust in journalists is so low?

The crisis in confidence doesn’t just affect journalists, it also affects all forms of authority, whether political, intellectual, or scientific. Our western value system, built on the West’s global dominance and the universality of our values and systems of intellectual representation, has been seriously threatened by globalisation’s rapid shift to the detriment of the West, causing disorientation for citizens. Then there’s the first wave of the internet, where ideas like “all views are valid” and “everyone’s a journalist” took shape; with the development of social media the idea emerged that the words of anyone can be worth more than those of an authority.

The “yellow vests” crisis in France illustrates a further degree, where the words aren’t even audible. The loss of trust in journalists is part of this dynamic. And now, as we’ve seen recently in France, they’ve been taken to task by the population. In certain regions, they are seen as conspirators in the service of private interests. These developments are very disturbing. My feeling is that there must develop a systemic approach to restore confidence. This begins with media literacy, strengthening the teaching of critical thinking in schools, life-long training for journalists... but that’s only the beginning. Journalism remains an essential watchdog, and our citizens know this, but attachment to democracy is weakening, which is very worrying, and only a collective realisation can make a difference.

You’re also the initiator of “We Europeans”, an initiative emerging from the Civico Europa association, whose slogan is “Let’s take back our future”. Do you think the salvation of the EU, undermined by the sovereigntists and populists, is to be achieved via civil society? How? What is the goal of “We Europeans”, and how do you expect to fulfill it.

Our purely representative systems, based on elections every five years or often instrumentalised referendums, are not totally in phase with the hopes of our fellow citizens. The representative system is founded on an asymmetry of knowledge between the representative and the represented. Now, with the constantly rising level of education, and digital outlets which have democratised a lot of content and horizontalised social relationships, the superiority of the elected, the representative, is no longer evident, which makes political legitimacy a lot less less evident, and obliges politics to “horizontalise”. I firmly believe in representative democracy, and in the need for representatives willing to take their time to imagine the future and weigh the pros and cons. At the same time, I understand our fellow citizens’ desire to be included and enjoy continuous participation in political decisions which impact their lives and fates. I think one response would be to complete representative democracy with an infrastructure of deliberative democracy and continuous participation. In this context, civil society has a major role to play. It needs to take the initiative and act, not against the representatives, but with mutual understanding.

With the “WeEuropeans” project, developed with civic tech organisation Make.org, the ambition of Civico Europa is to use the European elections as an opportunity to test a transnational and multilingual infrastructure for a European citizens’ consultation, allowing citizens to put forward proposals of European interest by bringing together a majority of citizens and transcending national confines. By means of social networks, we aim to reach more than 100 million Europeans in 27 member states and mobilise more than 10 million engaged contributors.

The consultation will allow ten positive proposals to be raised and reach strong consensus. The proposals will be revealed at the Congress of Europeans which we’ll hold at the European Parliament on March 22nd, a few days from the starting date of Brexit. These proposals, we hope, will be incorporated in the program of the European Commission. Civico Europa has proved its ability to influence, as shown by all the useful ideas emerging from the civic report, “The European Way For A Better Future”. Our partnership with Make.org provides us with outstanding resources when it comes to digital consultation. We are currently finalising finances and all support is welcome. If we succeed, it will be a world first!

At a time when the European project is being contested and the parties who oppose an “ever deeper Union” are in power or coming closer to power, what does it mean to be European or pro-European?

Yes, the European project is being contested, but which project? It’s not the idea that we’re stronger together. The eurobarometers haven’t been so positive since 1983, nor attachment to the EU so high. Since Brexit was declared, no other nation has threatened to leave the EU. Faced with the rising threat of Russia, and American isolationism, Europeans are conscious of the need for a common defence force and foreign policy, and common environmental values. They’re very fond of Erasmus, the euro… What is at stake, and it’s almost more disturbing, is the weakening of the attachment to liberal democracy, which is based on the capacity to reconcile power of the people, and a high level of protection of fundamental rights for citizens and minorities, and a complex system of checks and balances limiting excessive decision-making and arbitrary judgement.

What is at stake is the Enlightenment spirit and the very idea of progress. We’re entering the kind of period Europe has already seen in its past, where the reactionary dynamic is at work, but I’m not convinced that it represents the majority. It’s just better organised, more visible and better financed, often by foreign powers. This movement has also developed a serious talent for misinformation. For those who oppose reaction, and I count myself among them, better organisation is why we created Civico Europa, to mobilise citizens of all sensibilities throughout the EU. I invite you to read our last collective call to action published in about 20 major European outlets, and which you published on VoxEurop, which traces the path towards a democratic and civic renewal of the European project.