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Challenge accepted: 2023 .eu Masterclasses give Europeans tools for troubled times

4 Jan. 2024

By Alastair Gill

Held in Brussels, Belgium on 16 November, the second edition of EURid’s celebration of online entrepreneurship and innovation focused on artificial intelligence, disinformation, and the fight for European values in times of war.

A year after their debut, the .eu Academy Masterclasses returned on 16 November, giving EURid stakeholders, entrepreneurs and innovators another chance to benefit from the wisdom of industry specialists in various fields as part of a series of expert-led workshops.

The masterclasses formed part of the second .eu Day, a special event devoted to celebrating the achievements of online entrepreneurs and website owners using the .eu top-level domain, as well as giving them the opportunity to expand their knowledge in topical areas.

EURid rang the changes for the follow-up to last year’s maiden event, with this year’s .eu Day moving from Mechelen, Belgium to Brussels and adopting a leaner format. The venue for the day was La Maison du Bois, a former mechanical workshop on the site of the former Arsenal that has been converted into a stylish and spacious event venue.

As before, the .eu Day was divided into two distinct sections. The first half of the event was dedicated to the .eu Academy Masterclasses, followed in the evening by the 10th edition of the .eu Web Awards ceremony, which rewarded Europe’s best websites with the .eu top-level domain in various categories. However, in response to feedback from last year, the number of masterclasses was cut from five to three: this meant the speakers had the time to fully develop their ideas without constantly keeping their eye on the clock.


Should we be afraid of AI?

Czech IT and AI expert Josef Holý kicked the afternoon off with the first of the three sessions, an engaging introduction to Artificial Intelligence that aimed to dispel some of the most pervasive misconceptions about AI as a tool and the perceived risks and dangers with which it is often associated in public discourse.

Accompanied by a set of striking and often humorous visuals, Holý took the audience on a whistle-stop tour of the current state of artificial intelligence in the ChatGPT era. After introducing the basic characteristics of analytical and generative AI, he outlined some of the key ethical and security concerns that are shaping the debate. These extend far beyond the technology itself, from the role that external issues like global supply chains and geopolitical tensions play in shaping the context around the development and application of AI to the power dynamics within the industry, as well as the ways in which ignorance of the realities of AI and its influence are holding back discussions on regulating it.

Using examples ranging from social media, Holý, who has a special interest in digital manipulation, computational propaganda, and AI ethics, addressed both the benefits of AI and the drawbacks, giving the audience a balanced picture that took the risks into account.

Along the way he touched on some of the serious (and not-so-serious) questions surrounding AI: Why does it “hallucinate”? Will it make us more or less productive? What effect is it having on the labour market? What are some of the legal issues? Why is Mark Zuckerberg like a Roman emperor?


Telling the false from the true

For the second workshop, Sophie Timmermann, who is deputy head of the fact-checking team at the German non-profit independent newsroom CORRECTIV, took the floor to provide a framework for identifying and dealing with disinformation. She also shared some examples of the work her team is doing to protect Europeans from falling victim to false narratives, including faked images and misleading videos relating to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.

As Timmerman showed, the issue is a lot more complicated than simply being able to dismiss a story as “fake news”: disinformation comes in many forms, from outright lies and doctored images to exaggerated or distorted interpretations of events and the use of deliberately misattributed photo and video content. Some of the most common disinformation narratives relate to hot topics like Ukraine, Covid-19, climate change and migration.

As part of her talk, Timmermann, who has collaborated with leading factchecking organisations such as Bellingcat, also gave the audience a practical toolkit for spotting and labelling false or misleading information. This included some of the methods her small team of journalists in Berlin use to analyse material: geolocating images using open-source data, applying reverse image searches to suspicious pictures, contacting the sources of supposed quotes, etc.

Commenting later, Timmermann said that state involvement in the fight against disinformation is crucial. “It really starts at school, tackling education as the entry point for people to be critical towards consuming information”, she explained. “Older generations – that’s another challenge. We also have to find ways to incorporate them into our debates, because they’re the ones voting, so they are the ones also making decisions that influence the political landscape”.

“You need a diverse approach that tackles different generations and also tackles differences within literacy, but that’s going to require civil society, government and the media to work on these topics”.


Standing up for European values

After a break for coffee and snacks, things got serious. Lieutenant General Mart de Kruif took the stage to deliver a sobering but inspiring keynote speech on leadership in times of instability and war. Invoking the threat to Europe posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, as well as the rise of global authoritarianism and Europe’s current strategic weakness, de Kruif’s message was stark: European democracy and values are at greater risk than at any time in the last half-century, and only decisive and united action will be able to secure a peaceful and prosperous future for the continent.

De Kruif, who formerly commanded the allied forces in Afghanistan and served as Commander of the Royal Netherlands Army from 2011, began by talking about the lessons he learnt during his foreign postings. He then took a look back through history through the eyes of the post-war generation, transporting the audience into a time of precarious geopolitical tensions and the constant threat of war, including the potential use of nuclear weapons.

Returning to the present, he underlined that in an increasingly unstable world, Europe needs to take cohesive, bold action. As the Ukraine war has shown, Europe’s lack of a manufacturing base and its reliance on Washington and a U.S.-dominated NATO for security has left it ill-equipped to respond to strategic and military challenges. With upcoming elections in the U.S., it is vital for Europe – and Europeans – to take responsibility for defending our democracy.

“It is actually quite disturbing to talk about leadership while the clouds of war are closing in on us", de Kruif said after the event, reflecting on what it meant to him to address an audience representing Europe’s future. “I absolutely hope that I did not discourage the audience about their future, but challenged them to take the initiative and start formulating a new vision to save the world from climate change and violence and present the next generations with an even brighter future”.


Hope for the younger generations

The response to the second edition of .eu Day was universally positive, with organisers, speakers and stakeholders all keen to emphasise the significance of forums such as this as a way of exchanging knowledge.

“In our event planning process, we strategically prioritised trending issues, including fake news, the complexities of AI, and the implications of the ongoing Ukraine war on European values”, said Reelika Kirna, EURid’s communications manager. “We appreciate the expertise of our three distinguished speakers, who not only contributed valuable insights but also received positive feedback from our discerning audience.”

Charalampos Kyritsis from the Greek IGF, who was a Web Award winner in 2022, returned this year as a member of EURid’s Youth Committee, and took part in brainstorming and action plan for the committee the day before – which also involved a visit to the EURid offices. “It’s great to have the ability to meet all these people who are behind EURid but also in the EURid ecosystem”, said Kyritsis.

He added that it is vital for the younger generation to have the opportunity to attend events like .eu Day: “They’re also voters, they’re also shaping the society of the future. So it’s the most important thing to educate them to be critical, to have the critical thinking, to actually own their opinions”.

Josef Holý enjoyed interacting with so many young Europeans at the event. “That gives me hope, because these people hope for the future, but they have the capability to do something about it. It’s good to see engaged young people, because that’s very important. They need vision, they need some space to grow”, he explained.

Perhaps the most inspiring message of all came from Lt. Gen. Mart de Kruif: “Take your future into your own hands. Develop a clear vision, have the courage to implement it and trust people”.

Enjoy the photos of the event here.