PDF CEE 2019: Broken Feedback Circle
Part 2 of the summary of Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019: In Whom We Trust. Scroll down for the links to other parts of the summary.
Let’s Not Break Democracy by Mistake
Our first keynote speaker, Martin Tisné from Luminate, opened the first thematic stream with the talk entitled “Let’s Not Break Democracy By Mistake”, calling all reality-makers to take into account unintended consequences which in civic tech can turn exactly against the initial will and serve the opposite purpose. For example, an anti-corruption social campaign can lower trust in the state instead of increasing it, when it only exposes the problem but does not give its addresses the belief that there are practical solutions to it. Three examples of civic tech areas, where those unintended consequences can be especially harsh and which might be examined precisely are:
- online political ads currently often not allowing users to track their ordering parties and real beneficiaries
- algorithmic decision making in the public sector which is often not audited and requires finding balance between the open and commercial approach to data
- civic data rights – implementing them consciously to prevent data oppression i.e. targeting minority representatives instead of protecting them
About a decade ago, in the digital community, we did not think about users, we believed they would appear magically once such amazing solutions were on the table. Some of them did but not as many as we hoped for. The lesson to learn is: let’s be reflective. Yes, considering those unintended consequences is a very challenging and demanding task, but we should do it and we can do it from the position of strength and confidence that this is the right thing to do.
Hostile Narratives or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Disinformation
Massimo Flore who works in the Joint Research Centre supporting the European Commission spoke about hostile narratives – their history, basic mechanisms and possible ways to tackle them on the individual and social level. Hostile narratives are part of civic life for much longer than one could expect. The first “Twitterstorm” in the history (that we know about) was noted more than 2000 years ago, by Octavian and Marc Anthony, fighting to seize power after the murder of Julius Cesar. And they used exactly the same mechanisms as contemporary hostile narratives: collection of true and false information. Often narratives might be very different for different groups but the structure is similar and can be presented as Hostile narratives’ Pyramid:
- Fake content purpose – to get into a specific narrative;
- Problematic content – we can’t differentiate news real from fake ones;
- Factual information – true information is vital. If you want to build credible information you have to base it on truth. It is used to attack critics and fact-checkers.
Why does this still work so well? It’s because hostile narratives appeal to our most atavistic instincts. Disinformation campaign strategies have not changed (since Ancient Rome): they target exposed vulnerabilities with emotionally charged messages (triggering envy, anger, fear). This triggers in individuals the survival mode as our brains prioritize those information perceived as life threatening situations. In the example mentioned before – the power struggle between Octavian and Marc Anthony – poems and slogans distributed on coins were fabricated. One presented the other as a pervert, a murderer, etc., Marc Anthony inspired doubts that Octavius was really Julius’ son and Octavian produced a fake testament of Marc Anthony, which gave Rome to Cesareum (the Egyptian son of Julius Caesar). He exploited the prejudices in the Roman society based on Mos Maiorum – the set of customs, regulating the social life in Ancient Rome – and afraid that the Egyptian ruler might ignore or override them. And Octavian won.
So yes, hostile narratives can be a very efficient tool. In more recent times they have been used on the radio, on TV and now online platforms are used to spread them and that presents a risk for democratic values. But also we have already identified them quite well and we know what can be done:
On the individual level:
- when we see info triggering an emotional response in us, let’s stop and reflect – why I’m reacting this way?
As civil society we should:
- deconstruct hostile narratives
- tackle fake information, easy to debunk
Research on hostile narratives by Massimo Flore can be found here.
Global Trolling in the Times of Digital Propaganda
In the third presentation Marta Ardashelia from Sova News – the only independent Russian media news in Georgia – put spotlight on the methods of the Russian propaganda i.e. creating and feeding hostile narratives. It uses a sequential triada:
- play with emotions
- press precious points
Looking into Russian media coverage, one can easily spot how they define the role model for the state or nation, create myths and stereotypes and then make it a common sense. And in the next step, how they use trolling, manipulation and false accusations as well as division – creating a narrative in which the state is portrayed as opposite to the nation. For example, for the last few decades Georgians are consequently pictured as a positive, wine-loving nation but a failed state, unable to govern and protect themselves from the surrounding islamic empires. And recently, Raveolution – a wave of the youth’s protests – has been spinned by linking them to pro-marijuana-legalization movements and presenting protesting young people as drug addicts).
For the last decade, however, it has been taken to the next level, by reaching more and more people with soft power, i.e. by switching to local languages and creating satellite media and organizations. However the good upturn of this ignoble tactic is that more and more people from the young generation become immune to political propaganda. And what we can do to weaken “Global Trolling in the Times of Digital Propaganda”? Examine all news that come to us against triada presented above to conduct a personal safety check.
2019 Digital Challenge: Protecting Election Information Online
Marta Poślad, Head of Public Policy for Central and Eastern Europe at Google, describes some of the actions and tools implemented by Google to fight disinformation in the elections and polls field:
- products’ improvements, i.e. adding easier feedback mechanisms, banning misrepresentative sites and introducing search quality tests;
- supporting journalism, i.e. launching fact-check tag globally, creating partnerships with fact-checking organisations, strengthening fact-checking websites appearance in searches done by Google users;
- building media literacy – training journalists and citizens around the globe (2700 people have been trained this year alone), providing grants for EU NGOS to scale the educational impact in the region.
Additionally, Google is supporting the incoming elections with: giving voters information they need (updated electoral information; rolling out new tools and data partnership), helping voters better understand the political advertising they see (making it more transparent with Pad For By disclosure visible next to each elections-connected link in Google search engines, ensuring that all electoral advertisers provide documents confirming they are an EU based entity, publicly sharing data related to elections in a dedicated report) and protecting electoral information online (i.e. strengthening security of electoral platforms, conducting in-person security trainings, introducing Project Shield protecting sites from attacks, co-preparing the Code of Conduct for Disinformation together with with the European Commission).
Google, as a global leader in search engines and provision of the information on the internet, wants to take responsibility and is getting involved in transparency of the information that we get access to online. Especially because, although false information like content farms or boots represents only fraction of the internet traffic, they still have severely negative impact. As Marta pointed out – there is not one silver bullet to solve all the problems but one of the most impactful tool is media literacy: making journalists, policy makers and most of all – citizens, fluent in avoiding disinformational traps.
Kintsugi to Fix the Broken Circle
In the keynote speech closing the first session, Liljana Pecova-Ilieska from IMPETUS – Center for Internet, Development and Good Governance talked about the ingredients of a well-operating feedback circle – based on her experience from working in the public administration sector for several years. Do you know kintsugi? It is Japanese art of golden joinery – repairing broken pottery with with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The question is: what is our gold lacquer we need and use to fix the broken feedback circles of our civic relationships? The bunch of initial dilemmas to start with are: who failed in the broken feedback circle? Technology or we as human beings? And what is the responsibility of our generation? Are we responsible for fixing it or maybe just noticing the problem exists?
The effective ingredients of possible solutions are:
- Positive impact stories. Citizens sharing personal stories on how they were positively impacted by public administration actions have huge influence on civil servants and can help fix the broken feedback circle. Too often this positive feedback, i.e. how some open data can be life changing for families who moved from one place to another and started a much better life, never reach public administration offices. And that in turn can impact the level of transparency when civil servants are not motivated to “put on the website yet another meaningless statistics”. Because too frequently we forget that civil servants are human beings who are much more motivated by personal stories than by sets of performance indicators;
- Upfront agreement upon trust for the sake of transparency. Transparency carries within itself a privacy concern. And that requires mutual trust between people and institutions which can be achieved by encouraging a mutual dialogue;
- Constantly reminding ourselves about “human capacity” – that institutions are not machines but organisms and people constitute them;
- Ensuring the cross-sectoral perspective – civil servants should be obliged to work outside the public administration after some amount of time.
What makes this golden lacquer in our country? For Liljana, those are people – at the end of her speech she dedicated it to the group of co-workers and thanked them personally.
Before lunch we had a great opportunity to learn the basics of the Polish Sign Language PJM) thanks to Aldona and Aga from Deaf Respect. We learnt such everyday words as: hello, thank you, goodbye or how to show applause but we also got to know fundamental terms: democracy, constitution and trust. After lunch we used one of the most impactful tools to connect people – chocolate – to lift up the energy and vibe in the audience by asking PDF CEE veterans to share chocolate with those who attend the conference for the first time. Chocolate Malajska is produced by one of our sponsors – ZPC Bałtyk.
April 4-5, 2019, Gdańsk, Poland
*to be continued
Text by: Matylda Szyrle
Editing by: Marta Skotnicka