Session Summary: Bridging the Rift and Restoring the Middle Ground in Politics and Societies

Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, Stanford

Sandra Breka, Chief Executive Officer, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Berlin

Amb. Jakub Wisniewski, Vice President for Strategy, GLOBSEC, Bratislava  

Led by: Robin Shepherd, Vice President, Halifax International Security Forum, Washington, D.C.


The discussion centred around why politics, politicians and political systems have seen a considerable deterioration in trust by societies. According to Francis Fukuyama, this distress is fuelled by both economic and cultural issues. In particular, a cultural divide based on various socioeconomic factors has produced a society that struggles with understanding each other. He stressed that for this reason some distress is justified. Sandra Breka added that one of the most prominent drivers of polarization, and thus distrust, is inequality. She argued that we must support all citizens to receive the competencies to participate in the digital world. If we do not, it will simply add fuel to the fire. According to her, direct communication is one way to ensure that all groups are included.

The panellists delved into the issues of democracy caused by technological development and how this cleared a pathway to disinformation and a consequential societal divide. Francis Fukuyama mentioned that technological change, in the way information is disseminated, has fueled a “scrambling in democratic discourse”. People tend to believe a lot of false narratives, which are easily transferred through the internet. The panellists discussed whether the responsibility should rest on the firms providing these digital services, or rather on governments or citizens themselves. According to Amb. Jakub Wisniewski, regulation is particularly problematic. He stressed that if governments oversaw this regulation, they could take advantage of the opportunity and strengthen their own political situation. He added, though, that if regulation is not pursued, polarization and misinformation will continue to flood the infosphere, increasing polarization and distrust in all institutions, opportunistic or not. Francis Fukuyama added that putting pressure on big tech companies is not a very democratic way to limit the spread of misinformation.  

The panellists compared and contrasted these issues in different societies, mainly the CEE region, western Europe and the US. Francis Fukuyama argued that people often distrust the media because of ownership structure. In Eastern Europe, a lot of legacy media are owned by oligarchs which use this ownership to their own advantage. He believes that it is no wonder citizens in this region distrust classic media. Amb. Jakub Wisniewski added that this, coupled with all the other problems of the CEE region, are not radically different from those of developed countries. The main difference is that they become more complicated due to the immaturity of democratic institutions there and a weaker preparedness of the civilization to shield themselves from populist rhetoric. He mentioned that the citizens of this region do not have moral or intellectual authorities to turn to. Sandra Breka mentioned that we should not overlook the fact that in western Europe, conspiracy theories are just as prevalent.