Navigating the Digital Landscape: The Interplay of Media Narratives and Networked Authoritarianism

Image produced with text to image provider DALL-E

Blog post written by Ahmed X. Medien, Misinformation Village's Chair

The Civic Media Observatory (CMO) run by Global Voices has been conducting research in various countries, including India, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Mali during 2021-2022. The CMO's work centres around several important issues, such as elections, violent conflicts, nationalism, human rights, and women's rights (list not exhaustive).

Local researchers with diverse language skills and analytical abilities are assembled to identify and analyze emerging issues, narratives, and trends in the information ecosystems of each of these countries. The focus is on significant events in public life, providing a nuanced understanding of complex issues to help readers understand the motivations and narratives that shape public conversations.

Highlighted sessions:

June 5, 2023 | 2:30 - 3:30 pm Local Time

Room: Guanacaste 3

June 6, 2023 | 11:30 - 12:30pm Local Time

Room: Guanacaste 2

June 6, 2023 | 12:45 - 1:45pm Local Time

Room Central 3

Paired with the CMO project, Global Voices has also launched Unfreedom Monitor, to research and confront the chilling rise of digital authoritarianism. This project delves beyond the superficial layers of our media ecosystems to unravel the intricate mechanisms by which oppressive regimes leverage networked technologies to maintain control.

The seeds of this investigation were sown by Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices, who conceived the term "networked authoritarianism". Initially used to shed light on China's manipulation of the internet, it now strikes a resounding chord in a world where the digital domain is increasingly harnessed for surveillance, social control, and narrative orchestration.

At a time when the internet is fraught with advertising technology that indiscriminately tracks and segments users, the Unfreedom Monitor casts a critical eye on how such surveillance is commandeered by governments, states, and political parties. By shedding light on these practices, the project aims to empower society with the knowledge and tools to challenge and resist digital authoritarianism

The CMO, building upon the groundwork laid by Global Voices’ Advox project, has broadened its lens to cover the unfolding saga of digital authoritarianism in various countries, echoing from India's Hindu supremacy networks to Turkey's political unrest, from Nicaragua's parallel realities to Myanmar's tension, and from Russia's propaganda machinery to the battles of post-Cold War changes.

Their findings are shared through Undertones, a newsletter that serves as a gateway into the heart of local, vernacular, and multilingual media. It disseminates analysis of emerging trends and complicated stories, fostering a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. Moreover, it also grants access to the public datasets underpinning the Observatory's work.

While the Civic Media Observatory analyses media circulating in countries’ ecosystems, organizations like OpenArchive aim to address the pressing need to offer secure transfer and long-term storage of verified versions of media captured by people on their phones to combat misinformation. OpenArchive provides tools (mobile media archiving app Save), conducts research with partner communities, and produces guides to further secure mobile media archiving practices and ensure people’s media can be shared, archived, and verified/authenticated. , From human rights defenders and activists to archivists and citizen journalists, understanding how to safely send, archive, and, when possible, authenticate their mobile media is critical for creating robust evidentiary collections.

For example, OpenArchive’s ethical journalism guide provides best practices for citizen journalists, especially on how to elevate marginalized voices, build trust, and balance truth and accuracy with compassionate reporting.

In such a landscape where citizen journalists are at the forefront of information dissemination, these ethical principles become even more crucial. This highlights OpenArchive's role in amplifying the importance that journalism, even at the grassroots level, should maintain a high ethical standard to ensure the integrity and reliability of information shared with the public.

In this upcoming interview, we'll seek to dive beneath the surface of the stories reported on so far.

Giovana Fleck

What, in your opinion, are the most significant ethical considerations when examining the practices of digital authoritarianism across different cultural and political contexts?

We often think of authoritarianism as a set of practices pertinent only to autocracies or dictatorships. Totalitarianism is, in its essence, authoritarian, but digital authoritarianism is also present in democracies. When the methodology behind the CMO and UM was built, a huge effort was placed into giving protagonism to contextual and subtextual information. To me, these are two key principles that can guide ethical analysis on a case-by-case basis. As we strive to find differences and similarities between authoritarian narratives, it is important to make nuances evident based on how they are interpreted and applied by civil society.

Could you share a few (just one) key findings from your research that you believe should be highlighted and understood by the public?

Digital authoritarianism is not just a domestic issue of a few totalitarian countries. A small number of nations that are ostensibly democratic contribute much of the technology necessary to foster these authoritarian impulses. Without ongoing monitoring and strong attempts to fight it, all governments are vulnerable to digital authoritarianism in some way. As a result, reactions to digital authoritarianism must be global by definition, including action against governments and companies that promote it.

Alex Esenler:

Can you share some success stories or significant impacts OpenArchive has had on citizen journalism or information dissemination in regions where free press is threatened?

An early “success story” so to speak, was in 2017 when thousands of Iranians downloaded OpenArchive’s secure mobile media archiving app Save. They used Save to send their evidentiary mobile media to the Internet Archive (a backend Save connects to) when social media sites were blocked. This enabled Iranians to disseminate their media in an instance when typical dissemination routes were not an option.

In what ways do you see the work of OpenArchive evolving in response to the rapidly changing digital landscape and growing challenges of disinformation and networked authoritarianism?

One aspect of OpenArchive’s work is figuring out how best people can authenticate their mobile media. For example, when people use Save to send their media to backends, a sha256 hash is generated. Users also have the ability to add metadata to their images (for example, location tags) and we’re integrating Guardian Project’s ProofMode, which when enabled, allows users to add sensor data to corroborate metadata they add.

We view authentication and verification as crucial ways to help combat disinformation as documenters, human rights defenders, activists, and citizen journalists will be able to “prove” their images are authentic. One big challenge, however, is the verification and privacy/security spectrum. Some users are so at risk (e.g. facing physical threats, violence, etc) that metadata collection, authentification, and verification could cause extreme harm.

What challenges does OpenArchive face in outreach and/or building capacity with its audience of citizen journalist

A key challenge is instilling the importance and value of archives! Archiving is often an afterthought, and those in the citizen journalism and human rights space are typically at (or over) capacity, underresourced, and covering traumatic or sensitive topics. Finding trusted/reputable organizations who have the capacity to manage archives that collect evidentiary media from citizen journalists and be difficult as it is a big ask. However, this could be hugely useful in creating a repository of verified media to help preserve truth to power and maintain a people’s history. That is the ultimate dream!

An optimist message for the audience?

Giovana Fleck: What working on the CMO and UM taughtme over these past few years is that there is some light at the end of the tunnel in collaboration. Solutions thrive in spaces where there’s community and inclusion.

Alex Esenler: There are so many people who care and are talking about these issues. It is amazing how many tools, research methods, etc are trying to tackle misinformation.