09 transparenCEE

Organisation

TechSoup, ePaństwo Foundation, K-Monitor, ActionSEE and Opora

Location

Central/Eastern Europe and Eurasia

Recommendations

02 04

Innovation Category

Strategy

Building citizen skills to combat misinformation and fake news.

Summary

Facilitating cross-border experimentation and learning communities of enterprising civic technologists can lower barriers to deploying and scaling technologies, increase reach and deepen the impact of their innovations.


Main Features of the Populist Context

Since 2011, TransparenCEE has been operating in a number of populist environments in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, a region with significant concentrations of post-communist authoritarian “strong men” leaders or politicians engaging in polarising populist-driven agendas to legitimise their rule and influence. This includes Hungary and Ukraine, which are described elsewhere in this report.

Romania has not received as much international attention in terms of illiberal populist politics. However, prominent politicians, notably the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD)’s leader Liviu Dragnea, who has recently been convicted of corruption, have deployed narratives and tactics used by better-known populist leaders in neighbouring countries in support of their brand of populism. This has ranged from invoking “Soros network” conspiracy accusations against those who push for minority rights to “enemy of the state” rhetoric against foreign influence to inciting fears about EU attempts to transform Romania into a Western colony, characterised by the appearance of “we do not sell our country” slogans in mainstream media. The PSD was elected to power in 2016 with an exceptionally low voter turnout (39%) and a host of popular but unrealistic policy promises such as lower taxes, higher pensions and public sector salaries and increased social assistance.

In contrast, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been described as the “inventor of 21st century populism”, and the evolution of his rhetoric has been extensively analysed. According to the Global Populism Database, a comparative study of the speeches of global leaders, Turkey has witnessed the largest increase in populist rhetoric of the 40 countries analysed. Despite being classified as “not populist” when taking power back in 2003, Erdoğan is the only right wing leader in the world to reach the “very populist” categorisation in 2019, indicating a huge shift in his discourse during his 16 years at the top of Turkey’s political system. These cases exemplify the two core elements of populism:

anti-elitism: pitting “the people” (i.e. Islamists in Turkey) against a “corrupt elite” (i.e. secularists in Turkey).

anti-pluralism: the absence of any serious contestation of power or moral authority except that of these “strong men” leaders.

The other four additional features of populism are also present to varying degrees in the region:

anti-debate: Elections are formally or informally dismissed, for example, Erdoğan dismissed the results of the Istanbul municipal elections and demanded a rerun, while Dragnea dismissed his party’s EU parliamentary loss as a “hate storm”.

resistant to countervailing facts: Populist leaders and politicians across the region often lie, exaggerate, misrepresent or manipulate information to support the particular narratives they are promoting. Moreover, they often contradict their public statements in order to be provocative or generate controversy, and dismiss or do not engage properly with public challenges from other actors who have credible contrary data or evidence.

rejects intermediaries: Threats against traditional mediating institutions, such as the media, the courts and civil society organisations (CSOs), are common. crisis, breakdown or threat: Rhetoric of crisis, such as the breakdown of social order due to immigration or corruption (such as in Romania), is used to justify strong-handed, illiberal policies.


Role of Digital Media

Social media is one of the key channels through which populist leaders and politicians across the region personalise and disseminate their own brands of identity politics and “alternative solutions” they purport to represent. At the same time, however, similar digital tools enable traditional media outlets, CSOs and individuals to verify facts and hold politicians accountable for their statements.


Main Features of the Innovation

TransparenCEE is both a programme and community of non-profit, IT and media organisations promoting technology for transparency and accountability in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. It has successfully supported the scaling of community-driven civic technologies such as fact-checkers. The main features of the innovation include:

The programme has worked with communities to identify problems they want to solve with digital technology, finish and scale their solutions, then link solution designers to similar programmes and communities across the region.

Participating civic technologists can exchange ideas and best practices, forge new collaborations, learn new campaigning and coping strategies and generate new insights into future programming at the intersection of technology and social justice. Programme tactics include convening events and cross-border thematic working groups for networking, addressing specific knowledge gaps and developing new solutions and implementing practice- oriented research and analysis.

TransparenCEE has built connections between groups and organisations in different countries which had already been independently — and often unknowingly — experimenting in parallel to build tools for factchecking and “truth monitoring” politicians.

Numerous experiments have tested approaches and community engagement models to make fact-checking tools more accessible to journalists. These include using crowdsourcing and reader polls to identify statements which people want to be verified, automatic fact-checking, social media sharing- and web browser-plugins and live fact-checkathons. Through TransparenCEE, parallel innovators had the opportunity to learn from the international community of fact-checkers and then apply and adapt their learnings to develop relevant tools and campaign strategies for their home contexts.

By working as a community, TransparenCEE members have been able to leverage each other’s strengths, knowledge and lower the costs of testing and launching new programmes. As others had already built fact-checking tools, members could instead focus on riskfree trialling of the tools (and campaign strategies) with their respective communities, saving valuable resources and time.

The community has also facilitated crossborder adaptation and replication of successful tools in new regional contexts. For example, fact-checking initiatives in the Western Balkans developed through Action SEE Network later replicated the Faktograf fact-checking initiative to Croatia from successes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. TransparenCEE provided funding and connections to peer groups to run the fact-checking website, as well as training sessions in fact-checking methodologies for journalists.

Different fact-checking and consistency or “truth monitoring” tools and tactics related to TransparenCEE include:

Factual developed by Funky Citizens in Romania to fact-check the public statements of politicians — in parliamentary debates, on government websites and the general news — using teams of independent experts and citizen volunteers. Funky Citizens has also partnered with media organisations to live fact-check TV debates before elections. Facts were then published as live text in media partner newsbars and via social media within minutes of the public statements. The tool’s growth in online reach via Facebook has been remarkable: it is now used by 1.6 million out of the 9 million Romanians on the platform.

Doğruluk Payı developed by Ortak Gelecek in Turkey to monitor politicians includes a weekly Periscope session to discuss recent fact-checks, enables easy content sharing through WhatsApp, allows readers to upload statements they have fact-checked and keeps its large interested audience informed (such as its 160,000 followers on Twitter).

Opora’s social media scraping tool developed in Ukraine analyses statements from politicians’ social media profiles, to hold them accountable for their statements and identify inconsistencies. By aggregating data from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and visualising it through trends, word-clouds and maps, this tool significantly shortened an otherwise time-consuming process.

After its success in Slovakia, the Demagog.sk fact-checking website, developed by the Slovak Governance Institute to monitor the arguments of politicians and other public figures at political debates and other public arenas, was scaled – by volunteers – to the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. In the Czech Republic, the site successfully built a large digital following by regularly polling its audience about what facts they wanted to be checked.

The TransparenCEE network is also a key player in conducting research on the technological aspects of transparency of governments in Central and Eastern Europe. Its “alGOVrithms: The State of Play” report revealed the scale of algorithm usage in government-citizen relations within the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia. It also highlighted the lack of transparent policies as well as ethical or legal frameworks that clarify both state and citizen responsibilities for safe application of algorithms. The Asset Declarations in Central and Eastern Europe: Current Trends project is also assessing the efficiency and functioning of asset disclosure systems in 19 countries in the region.


Key Takeaways

  1. There is an enormous amount of talent, both technical and in terms of civic leadership, which can help build technologies to engage the digital public for civil society causes. However, there are few spaces where social justice leaders and technologists can come together to build, test and prototype. There are even fewer ways of obtaining user feedback to inform technical design and build communities of users. Too often, limited resources have resulted in good tools addressing the wrong problem, great social leaders not equipped with good tools, or good tools and leaders not optimised for campaigning. Communities can overcome this, share skills and learn together, but also benefit from the support of cross-border CSOs in facilitating these connections.

  2. International CSOs should build connections with enterprising groups — both large and small — and communities of civic tech activists as assets and networks for data and evidence to inform advocacy efforts. Organisations such as TechSoup can also help broker these connections. For instance, the Open Courts dataset compiled by two students for a university project became a meaningful new asset for Transparency International Slovakia’s data-driven evaluation of the state of Slovakia’s judiciary system.

  3. Tapping into this talented pool of motivated human capital with the skills to both lower barriers to organising and analysing data, and to convene and influence communities of like-minded peers on social media, requires more informal working processes and partnership strategies. This model “does not look much like a standard civil society process of researching, reflecting, and advocating”.


Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established, adjacent innovation. It demonstrates incremental development of technological tools for fact-checking, available as new open source assets for audiences elsewhere. Since 2011, it has also enabled new opportunities and modes of cross-border experimentation, skill-sharing, learning and scaling for audiences of socially-motivated groups of coders.


Innovating Organisations

TechSoup is an enabler and connector in the world of new technologies and social change, primarily focusing on technology capacity building for civil society.

ePaństwo Foundation (EPF) creates tools for open culture, public information and civic media, building citizen engagement and information skills to strengthen democratic processes.

KMonitor in Hungary helps institutions, journalists and individuals fight corruption through community building, technology development, advocacy and research.

ActionSEE (Accountability, Technology and Institutional Openness Network in the South East Europe region) is a network of CSOs jointly working on promoting and ensuring government accountability and transparency in the region, raising the potential for civic activism and participation, promoting and protecting human rights and freedoms on the internet and empowering CSOs and individuals in the region to use technology in their democracy promotion work.

Opora is a nationwide network of public activists in Ukraine dedicated to enhancing public participation in political processes by developing and implementing models of citizens’ influence on state and local government activities.


Innovation Report     2019

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