07 The Together Project

Organisation

InterAction

Location

USA

Recommendations

02 05

Innovation Category

Strategy

Strengthening civil society solidarity and resilience networks.

Summary

An advocacy hub engaging new allies beyond the sector and operating as a network to mobilise the grassroots solidarity and support of civil society partners in response to politically-targeted discrimination and disinformation.


Main Features of the Populist Context

In terms of the two core elements:

anti-elitism: Donald Trump’s 2016 US Presidential election victory on a populist-nationalism platform depended on his carefully crafted persona. Trump cast himself as the “true representative” of the American people fighting the corruption and arrogance of the “progressive” cultural and political elite of the Washington establishment. Trump’s inauguration speech included: “We are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the people … The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.” Since his election, Trump has promoted an explicit agenda to ban Muslim immigration. This is part of a broader nativist movement in the US, elevating latent anti-Islamic attitudes to the level of national conversation. The reduced rhetorical distance between the US administration and conservative right-wing Islamophobic groups has helped normalise and legitimise politically-motivated anti-Muslim content and communications in the media.

anti-pluralism: Trump has used language such as: “The only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.” His claims to represent ”the people” delegitimise all other political competitors and excludes anyone defined as not supporting this group.

Other additional features of populist-nationalism present in the case of Donald Trump are:

anti-debate: Those who oppose and seek to expose Trump’s non-factual claims have been quickly dismissed as liars, traitors or enemies of the state who should be sent to jail.

resistant to countervailing facts: Trump’s false claims are common features of his politics. By April 2019, the Washington Post identified more than 10,000 instances in which he had used false or misleading claims.

rejects intermediaries: Trump’s consistent attacks on the media as “fake news” highlights his disdain for any intermediaries between himself and “the people”.

crisis, breakdown or threat: Trump has used “crisis” talk to justify his anti-minority policies. He proactively incites fear of non-Americans with scenarios suggesting immigrants will take over the United States.


Role of Digital Media

In 2019, Freedom House has tracked polarising political and media trends, the “outsized influence of special interests”, the decline in independent and fact-based reporting “in favor of bellicose partisan media”, and the growth of social media platforms that “reward extreme views and fraudulent content”. In this context, US citizens are increasingly influenced by echo chambers of non-factual information and news that confirms their existing bias and opinions. Content promoted via social media now plays a disproportionate role in shaping public debate and opinion about policy issues. Rumours, lies and false information can spread quickly and pervasively.

International civil society organisations (CSOs) are also vulnerable to online disinformation attacks and campaigns intentionally designed to create confusion and division, discredit targeted organisations and their leaders, and promote inaccurate views about the communities they support. For instance, because of basic name-checking mistakes and then incorrect information gathered from social media profiles, an article in the US mainstream media falsely linked an impartial aid organisation delivering life-assisting programmes in Palestine to terrorism. Such “manufactured dissent” can rapidly spread internationally through digital platforms and networks, creating huge workloads for the organisations having to defend their credibility online. Fighting off trolls, false claims and smear attacks have cost members of the Together Project significant human resources and capital. One organisation, for example, had to spend over US$100,000 in one year to improve search engine optimisation results for its name and leaders.


Main Features of the Innovation

The Together Project is an advocacy and solidarity hub supporting and representing US-based development and humanitarian relief organisations confronting targeted prejudicial regulations due to their operating principles or religious faith.

The main features of the innovation include:

The Project has developed expertise in adapting technical advocacy tactics: Since 2017, the initiative has addressed both the discriminatory policies in the financial sector and inaccurate public risk perceptions that challenge these organisations, through advocacy with policymakers and regulatory officials. This has included convening expert briefings, advocating for specific language in bills and amendments, and facilitating policy and practice meetings with the US Congress, US Treasury officials, regulatory bodies and the financial and legal sectors on the impact of financial access and other operational support issues experienced by affected CSOs. The coalition has also participated in relevant multi-stakeholder dialogues and workstreams led by the World Bank and others.

These activities have achieved clear success in engaging new audiences and allies, notably the banking and regulatory sectors and new “champions” in Congress.

The Project has developed “a model of collaborative thought leadership” that enables information sharing and the development of common strategies in response to the attacks on these organisations. The Project does this by engaging a broad secular and interfaith solidarity coalition of CSOs. This has allowed the targeted organisations to find allies to carry important messages to different constituencies, including a broad, diverse faith-based community of international CSOs.

These relationships have enabled the strategic deployment of “surrogates” capable of promoting positive messages to members of Congress and others when advocating for specific issues. Most notable are the levels of solidarity actions leveraged through allied international CSOs, which mobilised their grassroots supporters to take direct action in support of an attacked organisation.

The Project has successfully cultivated a strong “one for all, and all for one” sector mentality in support opposed against politically-motivated attacks. Along with the five formal coalition members (American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), Helping Hand for Relief & Development, Islamic Relief USA, United Mission for Relief and Development (UMR) and Zakat Foundation of America), more than 75 other organisations are involved in learning and working group activities in support of positive public image, civil society strengthening, and responding to disinformation attacks. As InterAction stresses, “the exponential effect of displaying a united front” often goes beyond aiding an individual organisation. Rather, it promotes “a deepening of the public morale and posturefor the entire sector domestically and abroad”.

Without focusing on potential backlash, these allied organisations have stood together on principle with the coalition members and have mobilised significant shows of solidarity and support through their respective networks. For instance, a recently proposed congressional amendment, supported by a politically motivated think tank opposed to one international CSO, sought to cut the charity’s government funding. The think tank was drawing on baseless and incorrect “evidence” to link the CSO to supposed terrorist activity, funding and individuals. The amendment was ultimately withdrawn, not just because of effective insider advocacy involving the organisation’s congressional champions, but also because the congressional office was flooded with messages of sector support from 50+ organisations on behalf of the targeted organisation.


Key Takeaways

  1. Taking proactive measures to establish relationships, build trust and promote accurate information about what international CSOs are doing and who and what they represent helps counter false claims and motivates new audiences to consider why and how they might provide support.

  2. Building a base of both unlikely and likely allies is critical. Indeed, engaging likely allies encourages them to adopt new principle- and values-based solidarity actions and further mobilise their extensive networks to do so as well. This operating model is also valuable when advocating with government, regulatory and financial access stakeholders for change.

  3. Working as a network and addressing problems collectively have been essential to sharing insights and identifying
    solutions. Investing and contributing time, resources and relationships to better understand issues and vulnerabilities with like-minded organisations also builds sector capacity and solidarity capital as a longer-term insurance asset. In polarised political contexts, any international CSO, however impartial, non-partisan or apolitical it appears, could be at risk of targeted attacks aimed at discrediting its work, leaders or communities. “Keeping your head down and hoping it won’t be you” is no longer an effective avoidance strategy.


Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established, adjacent innovation. It demonstrates incremental use of advocacy, convening, education and media engagement tactics in different forums. It also establishes supportive adjacent audiences from the banking, regulatory and political sectors and mobilises the networks of other international CSOs.


Innovating Organisation

InterAction is the largest alliance of international CSOs and partners in the USA, with 180-plus members working in more than 100 countries to eliminate extreme poverty and vulnerability, strengthen human rights and citizen participation, safeguard a sustainable planet, promote peace and ensure dignity for all people.


Innovation Report     2019

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