Grantees in the spotlight

“Russian propaganda is constantly shifting strategies, focusing more and more on amplifying messages rather than creating its own. So it’s both evolving and becoming less detectable at the same time,” – Rumena Filipova, research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy.

Examining Russian disinformation in both Western and Central-Eastern Europe

Russian disinformation is increasingly influencing European public discourse in progressively sophisticated and subtle ways. A partnership led by Sofia-based think tank Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), and supported by Civitates, examines the dynamics of Russian disinformation in five countries across Europe. 

Rumena Filipova, a research fellow at CSD, is leading one of the first major studies examining Russian disinformation in both Western and Central-Eastern Europe.

Covid-19 misinformation: understanding its scale and scope

The phenomenon of junk news and its dissemination over social media platforms have transformed political debates in Europe. Civitates supports the Oxford Internet Institute, which is currently producing a series of research related to misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The big question – regarding misinformation- is whether the actions taken by social media companies are working.” – Lisa-Maria Neudert, Co-Principal Investigator at the Computational Propaganda project, Oxford Internet Institute.
“While it is clear that algorithmically driven intermediaries shape public discourse, we do not know the exact details. That is why transparency is one of the most important regulatory goals.”- Mackenzie Nelson, project manager of ‘Governing Platforms’ at AlgorithmWatch.

Better transparency tools to put pressure on platforms

In order to tackle the influence of intermediaries such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube on the public discourse, several regulatory attempts are in the making, both at EU level and in the EU countries. With the project ‘Governing Platforms’ funded by Civitates, AlgorithmWatch and partners are developing innovative governance proposals to feed into the EU and the individual countries’ policy processes.

Mackenzie Nelson is project manager at AlgorithmWatch and coordinates ‘Governing Platforms’.

United in support of democracy and human rights in Bulgaria

Bulgarians have an overwhelmingly low level of trust and participation in civil society organisations according to a survey by Open Society Institute in Sofia. With the support of Civitates the fragmented non-profit sector is able to unite and address the shrinking space for civil society initiatives and respond to anti-democratic and anti-human rights trends in the country.

Svetlana Mihaylova is Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Bulgarian Fund for Women, the organisation that coordinates Ravni BG, a coalition of 29 organisations from all over the country.

“The Covid-19 crisis highlights the need for civil society to adopt a proactive mindset”- Svetlana Mihaylova, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Bulgarian Fund for Women.

Further Stories

The novel covid-19 disease is a global health crisis, and the ways countries in Europe are attempting to hinder the progress of the disease’s outbreak are wide-ranging. In some countries, governments are now looking into the possibilities of using a smartphone app to prevent spread of the virus.

Diego Naranjo is head of policy at EDRi, one of the organizations receiving a grant from Civitates within the line of work that pushes for a healthy digital public sphere.

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In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government seems to have seized the opportunity of the crisis around the covid-19 pandemic, to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time. Earlier this week, the Hungarian parliament voted by a two-thirds majority for new legislation that could jeopardize the democratic rights of citizens.

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We all know digital freedom violations take place. However, as a lot of data is often missing, evidence can be hard to provide. With funding from Civitates, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a network of non-governmental organizations promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values in Southern and Eastern Europe started to cooperate with SHARE Foundation in Serbia. Together they systematically monitor digital rights and file cases in five countries;  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.

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Political campaigns increasingly target voters online with messages appealing to personal characteristics, a strategy known as political microtargeting (PMT). A Civitates-funded project by watchdog NGO Panoptykon Foundation sought clarity on the scale and impact of PMT in Poland, gathering evidence to inform European policy makers. Panoptykon Foundation is a non-profit that protects fundamental rights and freedoms in the context of fast-changing technologies and growing surveillance. The organisation engages in research, awareness-raising, civic engagement and advocacy towards policy makers.

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Experience tells us that cooperation and mutual trust between organisations of active citizens makes democracy stronger. To date there has been a lack of support for cooperation between networks of Czech civil society organisations working towards a healthy democracy and civic space. NeoN, a new, decentralised network, is helping to develop platforms and solidarity across the sector. It does so by coordinating working groups on crucial topics such as justice and migration, as well as knowledge groups of joint advocacy, communication and fundraising. Civitates provides funding to NeoN for its work in defending democratic principles and civil society.

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As a result of the recent municipal elections, the opposition is now in the driving seat in several cities in Hungary, including Budapest. It is not yet clear whether this development will also lead to more space for civil society to meet and discuss issues of common interest. Civitates is supporting ‘Open Spaces’, a new coalition that tries to provide an answer to the various challenges of the shrinking civic space.

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Over the past four years, the governing party in Poland has pushed through significant judicial reforms. Some of these reforms have violated the constitution and catalysed a fight with the European Commission. Civitates, a philanthropic initiative for democracy and solidarity in Europe, is funding a new coalition that promotes European values in Poland.

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Though it is widely believed that the spreading of false information changes people’s perceptions, it has so far been very difficult to prove the role of disinformation in influencing elections. Civitates has funded the development of a toolkit by Democracy Reporting International and MEMO98 in order to assess how online public discourse is impacted by disinformation, hate speech and other phenomena.

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The spread of misinformation using advanced technologies via different social media outlets is widely seen as posing a growing threat to democracy in Europe and throughout the world, especially in the run-up to elections. Civitates supports a project that aims to understand how misinformation flows in Europe and how the quality of public discourse can be improved.

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High levels of spending on political advertising that target individuals and small groups of individuals via social media have been a major feature of recent election campaigns. This trend for political parties to use highly personalised digital campaigning via social media -with low levels of transparency- was the reason why ‘Who Targets Me’ is being supported by Civitates.

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For several years now, Bulgarian NGOs have been the target of smear campaigns and hate speech because of their actions against corrupt and non-transparent political decisions. To counter this problem, Civitates is supporting a Bulgarian coalition that strengthens support for the work of civil organizations.

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Not long ago, Romanian NGOs active in the field of anti-corruption were described as foreign agents who had sold their souls to the enemy. Today, with support from Civitates, a new coalition of like-minded organizations works to improve regulations for civil society in the country.

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Slovakia has long been known for having a relatively open and liberal climate for civil society actors. Over the past two years however, organizations have been under attack. Civitates, has funded a new coalition to reverse this trend.

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The atmosphere of insecurity in Hungary has a chilling effect on civil society organizations, particularly those in rural areas. Civitates funds projects to strengthen democracy in Europe; for example Hungary’s Civilization coalition, which is ready to spring into action in case civic organizations are under attack.

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Good communication is key in the twenty-first century to informing public opinion. As the debate over refugees and migrants has become ever more polarized in Italy, Civitates has funded projects of support for civil society organizations which have found themselves on the frontline of humanitarian action and of efforts to try to explain the real story behind the anti-migration noise to the public and politicians.

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The stabbing and death of Pawel Adamowicz, the liberal mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk in January 2019 was perhaps the clearest sign yet of the tensions and divisions in the country. Civitates has funded projects of support for civil society organizations which have worked tirelessly in difficult conditions to try to break down these divisions and keep democracy and public participation at the heart of society.

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