This report was prepared by Dr. Elizabeth Guran, chair of the FOS Committee on Academic Exchanges.
The Friends of Slovakia (FOS) International Student Summits are off and running! Two successful virtual summits were held in 2021 and a third summit will occur in April 2022. All three events address the theme, “Challenges of Democracy.” The students, faculty, and expert guest speakers from past summits have all participated virtually due to covid-19 restrictions and will continue to do so for the third Student Summit. To promote a robust discussion while also respecting the privacy of the students, the summits have been closed to the public and no recordings have been made.
The International Student Summit idea was conceived by the FOS Committee on Academic Exchanges, chaired by Dr. Elizabeth Guran, to promote friendship and mutual understanding among university students in Slovakia and the United States and to enhance knowledge and interest in important global issues. Eventually FOS hopes the summits will lead to in-person conferences and international academic partnerships. The Academic Exchanges Committee, comprised of FOS board members Dr. Elizabeth Guran, Dr. Martina Hrvolova, Dr. Cecilia Rokusek, and Dr. Sharon Wolchik, direct and coordinate the student summits.
Partnering closely with FOS in this effort have been Kevin Deegan-Krause, professor of political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and a specialist on Central European politics; and Jozef Michal Mintal, assistant professor of political science and international relations at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, an expert on international cyberpolitics.
The Threat of Misinformation and Disinformation
The first summit, moderated by Professor Deegan-Krause, was held on Saturday, April 10, 2021. It focused on the threat of misinformation and disinformation to democracy and featured two expert opening presentations. In the first, Katarína Klingová, senior research fellow in democracy and resilience at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava, discussed social trends that enable the spread of misinformation and disinformation. These include the decline of trust in traditional news media and the growing consumption of news feeds on cell phones, especially by young people. According to some researchers, Slovakia is the most conspiracy-prone country in East-Central Europe, Ms. Klingová noted.
Jozef Mintal, the second presenter, described how the Internet has increasingly become a source of hate speech and disinformation and explained how the largest social-media companies have attained such a global reach that they are beyond the control of individual countries. Today, one person’s “disinformation” may be another person’s “free speech.” He concluded by encouraging the students to think hard about various proposals to control disinformation, all of which have advantages and disadvantages.
The rest of the summit was devoted to candid student-to-student discussions of these important issues, both in small virtual breakout sessions and then in plenary sessions where the main conclusions of the breakout sessions were presented and debated. Students recognized the complexity of controlling disinformation and misinformation. While most agreed that governments should restrict speech that is “harmful,” they had difficulty defining this harm. Many agreed that the solution was not banning speech but improving the quality of journalism, adding that education should help citizens become more sophisticated consumers of news. Politicians should stop using platforms when they do not know how to behave, they also noted.
Political Party Systems and Democracy
The second FOS International Student Summit was held on Saturday, October 23, 2021, and focused on political party systems and democracy, with Professor Kevin Deegan-Krause taking the lead, and Sharon Wolchik, professor of political science and a Central European specialist from George Washington University, serving as moderator.
Professor Deegan-Krause is coauthor, with Tim Haughton of the University of Birmingham (UK) of The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth and Death in Central Europe and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2020). The book is a detailed study of electoral dynamics in the postcommunist democracies of the European Union. His presentation drew on this book and his broader research on political parties and politics in Slovakia, Central Europe, and elsewhere.
Dr. Deegan-Krause distinguished between formal and informal institutions and compared governmental structures in Slovakia and the United States by looking at various types of accountability (vertical, horizontal, and diagonal) and identifying where there are weaknesses. He cited leaders in both countries who had defied democratic processes, such as Vladimir Mečiar and Donald Trump. He also discussed how Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, has systematically dismantled accountability in that country.
The second student summit included two virtual breakout sessions in which students from Wayne State and Matej Bel Universities engaged in lively discussions about the issues raised by the faculty presenters. Professor Wolchik asked students to consider what can be done to keep civil organizations accountable. What can we do as individuals to sustain democracy and foster democratic values? Professor Mintal asked students to consider whether structural changes to our formal institutions are needed to respond to current threats to democracy.
Students responded that much rested on the development of a robust civil society that could resist antidemocratic challenges. They identified several possibilities for change, such as increasing people’s understanding of the voting process and increasing civic education beyond just rote learning to “active engagement.” Students recognized that in many cases those in power do not want to make changes, and that it is hard to make institutional changes if there is a lack of “checks and balances,” as is the case in Slovakia, according to one student. But checks and balances need to be strengthened in the United States as well, others noted. Students discussed the nature of the threats to democracy, such as “antivaccine” propaganda and other types of misinformation and disinformation. Polarization remains a big problem for both Slovakia and the United States, according to the students.
FOS will hold it third student summit in April 2022. The planned topic is democracy and the rule of law but in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the organizers anticipate at least some of the discussion will focus on the war and its impact on democratic societies.