Global Voices Summit 2017 – debating open internet, freedom of speech and citizen media

Global Voices Summit 2017 gathered participants from more than 60 countries for two days of lively debates on the issues of open internet, freedom of speech and citizen participation in the media, this time in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2-3 December 2017. SEENPM was present at the event. Here is a glimpse of a variety of sessions.

The Future of Digital Conversations in Sri Lanka

The opening panel focused on digital conversations in Sri Lanka. The conversation revolved around silencing women in digital spaces, harassment, and political meddling and campaigns that affect democracies and institutions in Sri Lanka and elsewhere globally.

Sanjana Gattulowa, the founder of Groundviews, offered an overview of the media situation in the country. Sri Lanka has the highest literacy in the region (behind the Maldives), but very low media literacy. The result is “a low ability to critique that which we consume.” As a result, rumors take hold quickly.

In an environment with a triple-digit growth of smartphones, with more SIM cards than population, there’s a diverse and rich blogosphere in Sinhala and Tamil and a rich civic media community. That’s helpful, because professional media works mostly in a push more, with very little engagement with readers. What’s now shaping the space is the danger of hate, hurt and harm via social media, including a wave of Buddhist extremist nationalism expressed online.

Read detailed reports of the panel: by Ethan Zuckerman and by Vishal Manve

News Frames Platform – identifying framing in the media

A session was devoted to presenting News Frames Platform, a collaborative online space that incorporates different data, tools methods and people aiming to understand the way in which stories are framed in media, identify possible biases in news coverage and in ourselves, and explore new and innovative models to produce more accurate and comprehensive content. NewsFrames offers space and methods for collaborative media analysis.

Read a detailed report on the News Frames presentation

Video for Change

‘Video for Change’ panel explored community-based video storytelling. Photo by Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, used with permission.

The panel Video for Change: Community-Based Storytelling as a Tool for Resistance featured members of five organizations comprising Video4Change. Sam Gregory of Witness (moderator), Stalin K of Video Volunteers, Rima Essa of B’Tselem, Brenda Danker, of the Freedom Film Network, and Andrew Lowenthal of Engage Media.

Video4Change is a network of organizations that use video as a tool for marginalized communities to tell their own stories of resistance. They promote alternative narratives, defying the lack of diversity and representation of mainstream media, raising awareness about environmental and human rights violations and promoting social change. As Stalin K explained:

The diversity of mainstream media producers is deplorable so we decided that the only way to change the national discourses is to change the profile of the people who produce the content

Read a detailed report on the session Video for Change

Threatened Voices

Global Voice’s newest project, Threatened Voices, a database for documenting threats to online speech, aims to support bloggers, storytellers, journalists, and others who do the work of protecting our right to freedom expression through their activism and their work.

The team introduced the project by honoring just a few of the people who have worked so courageously for free speech but are murdered or were jailed.

Read the session report


Fake News is Old News 

One of the panelists speaking about the global issue of fake news was Filip Stojanovski who edits central and eastern European news for Global Voices, and he’s from Macedonia, the “home” of fake news.

Taisa Sganzerla, Afef Abrougui, Ivan Sigal and Filip Stojanovski. By Pernille Bærendtsen.

Stojanovski explained that in the former Communist states, people grew up under decades of news divorced from morality or public interest. The cottage industry of fake news in Macedonia, about the 2016 elections in the US, came primarily from one small city. There were small groups of people building these sites as clickbait to earn ad money from Facebook. Filip sees this just as an extension of state news and being told what’s true, and the advertising industry’s use of fake profiles and accounts to draw people to online advertising.

Had the Macedonian fake news purveyors had any coordination with US or Russian powers? Filip tells us that, thus far, no one has found those ties. There was already a cottage industry of content creation in Macedonia around topics like wellness and US football – it’s likely that this was simply a market mechanism, creating particularly outrageous and lively articles to attract clicks.

Read a detailed report from the session

No Country for Free Speech

The session ‘No Country for Free Speech’ was devoted to the current times of suppressing voices of human rights activists online. Case studies of Philippines and Venezuela were presented. Mong Palatino, Asia-Pacific regional content editor of IFEX, said that Philippines is the 3rd most dangerous country for journalists where president admitted to have hired a troll army to win 2016 elections and where troll armies and government leaders are spreading hate.

Marianne Díaz Hernández talked about progressive obliteration of free media in Venezuela that pushes people into online sphere to have meaningful conversations. However, people are afraid of expressing themselves due to fear of retaliation and online spaces are mediated by self-censorship where people are creating different online personas. They are sharing with people of the same opinion, not confronting, which is ultimately not good for free society and democracy, Hernández opined.

Hernández is pessimistic about finding solutions to this situation. She is concerned about the ability of privatized social media spaces to mediate communication. “Privatization of public space is dangerous”, she said commenting that these companies have the ability to cooperate with governments and push for their financial priorities. “Speech that should be protected, such as human rights related speech, will thus not have a place in these spaces. Their motives are financial, our data traded, and they will not uphold values important for democracy”, Hernández said.

Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society in India agreed in that we need a multiplicity of spaces online instead of a couple privatized platforms – pluralism is the key solution rather than regulation of existing platforms, he said. The best form of driving positive change, Prakash thinks, is activists trying to educate people.

Mong is of a similar opinion: since populist leaders are targeting with their messages population that is left out of conversation, online efforts to educate the public need to be combined with offline efforts in order to ultimately deplete the support for populist leaders.

This discussion thread continued throughout the conference.

Keeping the Internet open, healthy and safe for all voices 

This session broadly tackled various issues regarding challenges plaguing freedom of the internet nowadays, such as, in the first place, government shutdowns and government and corporate surveillance, where users are the weakest in the chain to instill change – they are left on their own to navigate terms and conditions and protect their data in the advertisement-driven business model based on data surveillance that is not going to go away as long as the capitalist system prevails, noted the panelists. At the same time, only a small group of users knows about privacy protection.  The opinions regarding potential remedies concerned empowerment of individuals and active engagement of civil society organizations that could build peer networks around these issues and provide support to people, as well as a demand for stronger presence of civil society in multi-stakeholder governance.