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President Berset of Switzerland delivers Penn Law lecture about threats to democracy in the 21st century

September 28, 2018

On September 27, Penn Law hosted a wide-ranging discussion with Alain Berset, President of the Swiss Confederation, on the functioning of direct democracy in Switzerland and how distrust, misinformation and fake news might endanger that democracy and others around the world.

The event, part of the Global Leadership and Public Policy Speaker Series, featured a keynote lecture by President Berset, followed by a conversation between President Berset and Nicholas Thome L’20, moderated by William Burke-White, Richard Perry Professor, Director of Perry World House, and Professor of Law.

Penn Law’s Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Associate Dean for International Programs and Global Advisor for the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Fund, introduced President Berset as “an extraordinary leader of our times, a voice of moral courage, a leader who fearlessly reminds us that by strengthening others, we also strengthen ourselves.” She praised President Berset’s powerful vision for promoting democracy through education, cultural diversity and inclusion.

During his lecture, President Berset presented Switzerland’s model for strong, direct democracy. He emphasized how in Switzerland, democracy extends beyond voting to the processes of negotiation and compromise. Switzerland has four national languages and 26 cantons (or, member states), making mutual cooperation essential. In a direct democracy, he explained, everything is up for debate — including the question of international cooperation.

“Switzerland is a small and open country at the heart of Europe,” President Berset said. “But Switzerland’s openness to the world is by no means set in stone.”

Later this fall, Switzerland will vote on the Self-Determination Initiative (SBI), which aims to minimize the influence of international law on the country by ensuring Swiss law takes precedence. Switzerland’s seven-member government executive — over which President Berset presides — has firmly rejected the SBI and advised Parliament to do the same.

“We have to be able to show that we can rely on international law, and that its rules are stable and fair,” President Berset said.

After discussing Switzerland’s political system and its unique challenges, President Berset went on to identify fake news in particular as a key threat to democracy. Describing the risk of the spread of fake news in Switzerland, he noted social media is an arena where unverified words can flourish. Given the dangers of misinformation, President Berset said that he views truthful and accurate journalism as instrumental to safeguarding democracy, and issued a call to action. 

“We need to take the problem of fake news seriously,” he said.

Emphasizing that denying fake news will not make it go away, President Berset argued that it is crucial for consumers of mass media to learn to absorb information with a critical eye.

The lecture expanded into a conversation with Thome and Professor Burke-White about the lessons the United States can learn from Switzerland’s model in the era of alternative facts and fake news. President Berset lent his perspective, crediting education as instrumental in the effort sorting through news to determine the truth, and calling for more effective education of the youth and the public at large about fake news.

Solving the fake news problem will require journalists and writers to communicate more clearly, President Berset explained. “The quality of information ultimately depends on the media.”