PDF CEE 2019: Citizen Fake-Xperience
Part 3 of the summary of Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019: In Whom We Trust. Scroll down for the links to other parts of the summary.
The second session Citizen Fake-Xperience opened with the keynote speech of Milda Matačiūnaitė-Boyce and Corina Rebegea from Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) about strategic narratives and other tools NGOs can use to rebuild multilateral trust in the era of “Post-TruthTrust”. First of all, they pointed out that trust is the foundation of the society and disinformation campaigns knowingly aim to damage it, often with the help of Russia-backed propaganda machines. Breaking trust is their broader, conscious goal, aiming further away than particular political elections. Examples of such disinformation campaigns are way too familiar but also similar across the CEE region and globally:
- attacking the solidity of transatlantic alliances
- destroying relations between neighbours
- undermining trust in the legitimacy of democratic processes
Also, those techniques are based on preexisting fears, and that is why while Oxford Dictionary in 2016 named post-truth the word of the year, post-trust should be the word of the century. Diminishing of trust in institutions has been going on for the last 70 years in the US and the global trend is similar and long-term. In the last years, however, trust in NGOs has been increasing in 21 of 26 countries (based on Edelman Trust Barometer) and around the world civic action and participation is increasing (6 out of 10 Americans have donated for a civic cause in the past year). Could we then say that In David We Trust? We were encouraged by Milda and Corina to say: yes, we could and follow the idea that the new generation of Homo Civicus can grow on this hostile ground. Feeding on the Paradox of Trust, the decline in trust for institutions becomes an opportunity for NGOs. Citizens are losing their trust in the capability of institutions to do work for them, so they do it by themselves instead. Civic activism can be very powerful. An example is Romanian entrepreneur Stefan Mandachi’s campaign #sieu (he built the first 1 metre of highway in Moldova, the poorest region in the EU) or Lithuanian civic campaign which managed to remove Soviet symbols from sportswear of Adidas and shops of Walmart (although Amazon didn’t remove them so the campaign is still active and we can still participate in it – look for the hashtag #WhyNotSwastika). And an already historical but extremely powerful example is the Solidarity movement from Poland in the 1980s.
So, how can NGOs and civil society activists most effectively grow stronger in the current occurrence of the Paradox of Trust?
We need to build our own master narratives – that is a crucial idea for civic organisations. Learn how to recuperate technology that has been confiscated by negative actors, from emotional stories to algorithms and technological innovation, and turn it into positive tools, creating transparent and ethical ways to employ technology in our work. Play the long term game: re-create and re-engineer political civic space where political consensus is possible and institutions can regain trust.
Who Targets Me (us) And What Can I (we) Do About It
In her speech Who Targets Me (us) And What Can I (we) Do About It, Katarzyna Szymielewicz from Panoptykon advocated demanding from online players and regulators a full picture of how online targeting works. She began with taking us all back to the introduction of internet into our lives and the promising vision of access & choice it would bring to us and the society. Yet somehow, although we still like to think about ourselves as “users” with independent will, thanks to the data collection and commercial use, we became “targets”, not “users”. What can I do to stop being a “target” and to keep my data for myself?
The data that we consciously share are just the tip of the iceberg. The rest is collected “behind our backs” and computed to provide information on what preferences we have, what we will buy in the future or to create our psychometric profiles. Which of course might not be perfectly correct, but still has significant potential to filter information we see online in such a way that in consequence we might change our behaviour / way of thinking. And usually we are not aware of that at all. Even though Facebook has made recently a lot of improvements on transparency of targeting, and despite Code of Practice on Disinformation prepared last year by the European Commission, there is still plenty to do. For example, Facebook (but it applies to any other social media) is still showing accounts pretending to be apolitical but with a clear political agenda and targeting users who might be susceptible to them. They might be even linked to political campaigns money but from the targeting info on Facebook we can’t tell the PR strategy of political agencies and why they want to target a given audience.
In Ukraine people can check who was watching ads (at what age, etc.). This information, however, does not give us enough answers about who was the owner or sponsor of the ad. We should help people make informed decisions and be informed about decisions made by algorithms. So we could understand why I’m being targeted.
There is an ongoing discussion about UE regulations but to deliver a regulation we need good evidence. Yet big platforms stop civil society and researchers from analyzing what is happening, eg. by making regular tweak changes in their codes so that only their tools are working properly. In consequence, those giant online platforms become self-regulated. Do we fully trust them? We need tools provided both by companies and by independent civic tech organizations to evaluate those platforms.
As a step towards this direction, we will collect data on political microtargeting in Poland around parliamentary elections this year within the scope of joined project of Panoptykon and ePaństwo Foundation using the Who Targets Me? tool. Our goal is that we become real users.
How Not to Suck at Citizen Participation: 3 Step Programme
Imants Breidaks presented a tool working for the last 8 years in Latvia: Manabalss, the online platform where each citizen can submit a new law proposal and if it receives the required number of citizens’ signatures, this proposal is later voted by the Latvian Parliament. They achieved significant results so far – 67% of initiatives that went to the Parliament have been adopted – and managed to create internet participatory culture making Latvia one of the leaders of digital democracy: 16% of Latvians voted at least once for one of the initiatives and in the country of 2 million people, Manabalss has gathered so far 1,3 millions of signatures (in total).
Philosophy behind the project: we often hear that “democracy is in crisis today because of technology” but democracy has been diagnosed with crisis already several times in almost every century in the past. The current situation, therefore, is definitely not sealed yet and although technology can be used to create obedient citizens, it can also fuel technology assisted activism and be turned into something positive. And despite the decline of trust and disillusionment with governments, political participation is rising and disruption through innovations can give way for the actual social changes.
The main elements of a successful online participation platform:
- Firstly, you have to know and involve your stakeholders – create an appealing narrative and be open to the media. Know how to tell a great story and master nation-level political marketing;
- Secondly, have effective communication plans – know your target audience and have a story to tell but avoid preaching. Get in touch with citizens who care, but also be selective on who can be active on your platform to avoid trolls;
- Thirdly, learn how to work with decision makers – politicians from all sides. You need to know how to communicate effectively so you don’t make enemies but friends.
Some important technological trends to take into account: data driven campaigns and political dialogue, manipulations based on algorithms, tackling legitimacy in the political landscape.
Some reflections: disruption is happening through innovations. Manabalss creates the effect of microparties – people unite for a moment for some reason and then they disperse because they are not part of one organization.
Overcoming the Sin of Silence: Let’s Start with Basic Questions
Natalia Mileszyk from Centrum Cyfrowe shared a story of her personal fight against ‘Article 13’ (new EU’s copyright law, in the final version it is Article 17 of this Act). In her and her team’s view, the proposed legislation was very intrusive and limiting to people’s rights. They got involved in the campaign lobbying against it, despite being discouraged from the very first to the very last step. They have been “classified” as “not belonging” to the discussion, human-rights activists not capable to talk about real business, real money and technology. They asked basic questions i.e. about the evidence behind the proposed solutions and did not get answers… because there were no answers. They managed to mobilize online society (by collecting 5 million signatures via Save The Internet campaign). At the end, however, it’s them who became targets, having been attacked personally, accused of being a mop paid by big tech companies or by Russia.
And although this is not a success story (the law has been approved by European Parliament), we can take from it some important lessons:
- Basic questions matter. Many people discuss sophisticated technical details, but we forget about basics i.e. the perspective on “how will this technology impact the society?”;
- We all have a role to play in this discussion. Tech really influences our lives and that is a reason good enough to be vocal and take a stand. Everyone has some skills that can be useful in this debate;
- Damage control is important. Although it is not a success story, the approved Act is still a better version that the original one.
How can we mobilize the power to be somewhere where we are not wanted and we’re told thousand times we do not belong? As Shirley Chisholm, the first congresswoman of colour, said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair“. The more unwelcomed you are somewhere, the more you should be there because you are un-welcomed not due to lack of skills or knowledge, but due to your disruptive perspective. “I really believe that it is our responsibility to be vocal. So I am encouraging you, next time you will discuss technology or you will have an opportunity to create a public policy or take part in a public consultation, when you think it is not a place for me and I don’t have anything meaningful to say, I totally encourage you to remember about this case: take part and really make a difference in the debate about technology”.
How To Fix The Future
Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Media brand and the co-creator of Civic Hall, handed out his receipt on “How to Fix the Future”. In his view, the current state of global affairs is alarming and some fixation is needed. Despite original hopes of most of us and plenty of proofs supporting the thesis that “tech” makes things better, there is even more evidence that technologies can make things worse and pose a real threat for democracy: weaponization of hate speech, privacy invasion, global cyber information war, addiction to smartphones… during the speech Andrew asked the audience to turn off all their devices and focus on listening. To focus on (well spent) time – here in Gdańsk. He distilled his thinking and experience of 15 years to 3 call-to actions. They may seem simple but they are still very challenging to implement. All three need to be completed in unison – they may be successful when done collectively and there are no substitutions:
- Resist bad (tech, politics, homophobia, food, etc.). Resistance is a constant, never-ending process. Keep cutting out weeds from your garden. If needed – wear gloves. Not only politicians need to be held accountable but tech companies as well – for doing things that hurt societies in the world. But also we need to hold ourselves accountable. Look at unintended consequences of what you build. Ask yourself questions: Are you enabling ownership? Do you ensure safety of users? Are you looking at wide impact? Are you building with, not for? Are you thinking collaboratively, civically? Think globally, act locally.
- Connect people to each other. Electing politicians and good laws won’t change things anymore, it was the 19th. century recipe. Civic engagement means being present in your community, paying attention to your neighbour, to their children, to what is going on across the street. The challenge is polarisation and that we are stuck in our bubbles. Options? Better Angels connect pro- and anti- gun activists and put them through couples’ therapy. Listening to each other has to come first. Make other people feel they have been heard. PDF CEE is an example of a community where people make effort to listen to each other. Look at the diversity at this conference: 47% speakers are women (yay). Where are people of colour, though? And most importantly – where are our political opponents? Next year, if you come back, bring here a person completely different than you are. And let’s create the atmosphere of connection with people who aren’t like us.
- Invent new systems and replace the old ones. We use systems that were created in the agricultural age. Now, in the information age they are obsolete. But we don’t know how to ask for something we cannot picture because it doesn’t exist yet. In the 18th. century people would ask for “faster horses”, not for cars. So we should stop asking to “hold elected leaders accountable”, etc. but create new, better solutions. Civic tech embodies any solution that helps people and supports the public good. Although we need to keep working on and with the system we currently have, i.e. democracy, at the end of the day, to address today’s challenges we need a redesign of governance and involvement of the society. Maybe electoral systems aren’t the most effective way. Tech keeps advancing faster and faster. We hope that governments will somehow step in and regulate that but we can’t count on that. Neither on companies efforts. They have no incentive in changing the system. And AI has already been weaponized by companies seeking profit. So we could focus on fixing something that might seem not fixable or invent something new. Look at DemocracyEarth, Loomio, Polis – experiments in constructive decision-making and creating cooperation. They want to build trust – in opposition to corporations focusing on making profits.
Andrew underlined his admiration for the late Mayor Paweł Adamowicz as he had practiced the following elements during his career: calling out bad political practices, connecting citizens between themselves more than connecting them with the government, experimenting with open data, open budgets, citizen panels. And he saw in the PDF community the same spirit and values he believed in and practiced. It’s up to us to make sure his death only mark the end of his life, but not the end of his efforts on fixing the future.
April 4-5, 2019, Gdańsk, Poland
*to be continued
Text by: Matylda Szyrle
Editing by: Marta Skotnicka