This project has received funding from the Democracy and Media Foundation

Project leader: Tarlach McGonagle

This project is coordinated by IViR and operated in collaboration with the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research’s (NNHRR) Working Group on Human Rights in the Digital Age. The NNHRR is a collaborative initiative among Dutch universities conducting research on human rights, especially Ph.D. candidates, but also including senior researchers. The Working Group (WG) has two tracks, focusing on: 1) free expression and public debate in the digital age, and 2) privacy and data protection in the digital age. The WG’s coordinators are Tarlach McGonagle (Track 1) and Aviva de Groot, Jenneke Evers and Silvia de Conca (Track 2).

Description of problem and project:

Public debate – the shared space where matters of interest and importance to society are debated openly, robustly and without fear – is under increasing pressure. Political spin, propaganda, disinformation, deception and fabrication, amplified and multiplied by computational and algorithmic techniques, often controlled by powerful online gatekeepers, are disrupting and destroying public debate. The public’s trust in political leaders, media, social media and other actors who participate in public debate, is at a very low ebb.

In public debate and public policy-making, ideas matter; expertise matters, and academic expertise matters. This project addresses the specific problem of the disruption and destruction of public debate and the devaluation of academic expertise in both public debate and public policy-making. The project sees effective academic contributions as key ways of revitalizing public debate and policy-making. Yet academic expertise does not always travel smoothly into public debate and policy-making. Well-honed communicative skills are needed to render academic expertise relevant and accessible to wider audiences. This project seeks to provide the capacity-building necessary to acquire those skills.

The activities will help WG members to communicate their academic expertise more widely and more effectively in policy-making processes and in public debate. To achieve this aim, a series of structured activities will help members to sharpen their insights into the workings of international organisations and sharpen their multi-media communication skills.

The title of this project plays with the phrase ‘town and gown’, which points to the relationship between a university community and the wider population of its host town, or more broadly, academia and society.

Visualisation of the project’s strategies/objectives

The planned activities include:

  • A series of fireside chats – informal, roundtable meetings involving key representatives of (inter)governmental organisations (or NGOs) and WG members.
  • A series of trainings or workshops to hone WG members’ communication and digital research and dissemination skills. The focus will be on particular techniques, formats and/or genres.
  • Public symposia on selected topics relating to the WG’s thematic priorities.


Previous fireside chats: