2018-12-13 13:49:56
Civil society, technology and the democratic institutions In Focus/Scrapbook

The School of Public Policy at the Central European University organised an excellent forum on how to counter the anti-democratic trends in various countries. The discussion took place the day after Fidesz, the party which is responsible for countless anti-democratic steps in the last 4 years won a landslide victory in the general elections. Though this could have defined the discussion, due to the large number of foreign participants (both on the podium and in the audience) enabled us to move beyond the specifics of the Hungarian situation and address anti-democratic tendencies and counter-strategies from the US via France to the Ukraine.

You should check out the recorded panels, and/or the twitter archive for the amazing contributions by the participants. What I would like to do here is to sum up my arguments in the panel that was addressing the role of digital technologies in the pro-democratic process.

I was invited to the event due to my role in the One million for the freedom of the press (Milla) movement between 2010 and 2012. To briefly recap the events of those 3 years: curtailing press freedoms was one of the first steps in the anti-democratic policies of the Orbán government, prompting not just widespread international criticism, but mobilizing a large number of citizens against that and other anti-democratic policies. Many Facebook protest groups were established at that time, but the Milla FB page was the one that went viral, and gathered the people upset by the policies of the government. A diverse and quickly growing group of activists gathered to do something with those tens of thousands who expressed their dissatisfaction, and from that the Milla movement was born: we organized a number of street protests that mobilized tens and hundreds of thousands on the streets of Budapest, we edited a continuous stream of news, opinion first on Facebook, then as a standalone online publication. Till late 2012 Milla acted as a pressure group of concerned citizens, not directly interfering with party politics, but that has changed: some members of Milla decided to run for office, and dragged Milla into the political sphere dominated by party politics. That did not end well, but that is another story, still in development, so I would like to focus on what I’ve learned from the period I was still a participant, in the years before Milla transformed itself from an independent citizen movement into an ally of the political opposition parties that lost the 2014 elections.

The message of Milla was clear from the beginning: if you don’t like what is happening to you or around you, do something. Milla was not supposed to lead the people, or to advise them what to do beyond this single point: if you see something, say something. Let your voice be heard. Protect the things you value with your body, if that is necessary. Look, this is what we are doing when the freedom of press is in question, and you could and should do the same.
Well, that message had a limited appeal. Many simply did not get it. The idea of an autonomous individual, who is supposed to form self-governing communities to work for the issues that they think is important was not easily digested by those who were still expecting others to solve their problems. It did not scale well either. It seems that the hundred thousand that we were able to reach was, and still is a local maximum: that many number of people decided not to let their private pension finds nationalized by the government, that many people went to the streets to protect the 1989 constitution, and even less people thought that showing solidarity for the homeless, for the Roma, or to protest the flawed education, economic, social policies is what is takes to be a citizen.
One of the big question of the SPP forum was how to counter the anti-democratic policies. My observation is that the anti-democratic turn in Hungary was possible because there were few people and communities to protest them. In the speech I gave on one of the first protests I said that I was actually happy for the aggressive anti-democratic steps of the Government because it made all of us think about how much pres freedom, independent judiciary, private property and other basic democratic values worth to us. Well the deafening silence of the majority of the society in the last for years suggests that they don’t value these things too highly and they are willing to let them go, if they are contested.
This means that for me the main question is not how to counter anti-democratic policies, but how to build a nearly non-existent civil society, for which freedom, autonomy, self-determination, solidarity are essential, and they are willing to take sacrifices to nourish and protect them.
I am skeptical about of the prospect of having a well functioning (civil) society in that respect. Between 1989 and 2010 we had everything we could ask for to make this happen. Pre-9/11 global politics was a bliss, pre-2008 global economy was prospering, we had the right local legal frameworks, we had the money flowing from entities like the OSF to build the foundations of the civil society, we had the internet boom, we had a plethora of more or less free media, and it did not happen. The few, respectable civil organizations, watchdogs, were talking to the same hundred thousand that Milla was able to reach.
Now we have a much harder task, since none of the aforementioned environmental conditions are there. I outlined at the panel the conditions in which we need to build the civil society, and they are not favorable:
– in the foundation: civic engagement, and an irrepressible want of freedom,autonomy, self-determination, solidarity, equality (indifference, fear, lack of trust, lack of autonomy)
– equal access to technology (digital divide)
– equal access to opinions on digital media (filter bubbles)
– transparent algorithms that edit or news feeds (intransparent FB/Google algorithms editing our news)
– easy transition from clicktivism to real world actions (clickitism as a substitute for political action)
– and finally: a receptive government which listens (ignorance and cynical government)

Though there are tricks to cut through some of these problems, it all starts with the first, and digital technology in itself, even without all the aforementioned issues will not be able to create a civil society which is lacking in the first place.
On the other hand surveillance, big data based political campaigns, poll-based governance is able to very effectively “abuse” the digital revolution and nullify and appropriate its emancipatory potential.

As Tim Dixon, my fellow panel member so aptly demonstrated, digital political activism can and should be professionalized, and probably there are many things to learn from them in terms of how to craft professional, viral messages that serve well specified aims. Whether that is able to roll back the rollback, is a big question for me.

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