DOC Rhodes Forum 2019: Leaders Club Meeting on the Role of Civil Society: Ascending or Descending?

Session 2: Civil Society and Protest in the Digital Age

DOC Leaders Club Meeting on 11 October 2019 in Rhodes, Greece, chaired by Vladimir Yakunin, Chairman of the Supervisory Board, DOC Research Institute, featured two discussions surrounding the theme of “Role of Civil Society: Ascending or Descending?” Gabriela Ramos intervened in the second session entitled “Civil Society and Protest in the Digital Age.”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Promoting people-centered policies for sustainable development and inclusive growth is impossible without the input of civil society.

Unfortunately, in the last decade we have observed a global shrinking of civic space. In too many countries, the freedom of citizens to protest, mobilise, and speak out is being contested and restricted.

Data from 2018 tells us that more than 3 billion people live in countries where civic space is repressed or closed. Last year the CIVICUS Monitor reported 109 countries having closed, repressed or obstructed civic space.[1]

But increasing government pressures and surveillance are not the only factors changing the landscape of civil society action.

The digital age has transformed how governments, citizens, and civil society interact and how protesters voice their discontent.

Connectivity, rapid information exchange and social media offer new ways for civil society coalitions to form beyond national borders and for citizens to stay informed, engage more actively in the policy-making process, and organize themselves to start protest movements – we saw this with the #MeToo movement, and the use by the yellow vest movement of Facebook.

There is some evidence that this could be contributing to increased political engagement. According to The Economist Intelligence Democracy Index 2018, political participation is the only category in the Index to register an improvement in comparison to previous years.

This could indicate that while citizens and civil society are disillusioned with formal political institutions, protest movements and other forms of political participation are growing.

Unfortunately, some of these gains are being made by populist and even extremist parties, who exploit new digital possibilities to amplify their reach and spread propaganda. However, these channels can also be used for good – like raising awareness around climate change and mobilizing the kids strike.

However, in some cases, online platforms and the growing capabilities of AI and big data analytics are being misused to propagate, tailor, and target misinformation. This has diverse aims, but they range from dividing societies, influencing opinions and election outcomes, securing economic gains, and recruiting intelligence sources.[2]

Additionally, confirmation bias combined with the algorithms curated by platforms to more accurately tailor content and advertising to their users, form echo chambers that can polarize political opinions and often lead to misinformation.[3]

Lastly, lack of regulation surrounding data privacy, contributes to its misuse as a surveillance tool. According to the NGO Access Now, governments forced over 196 internet shutdowns in 2018.

In the face of the digital transformation, we must mobilize digital technology to counter the  threats to civic space, while minimizing the risk that it undermines the integrity of civil society work.

Thus, building on its work on Open Government and the recently adopted Recommendation of the Council on Open Government, the OECD has established its Observatory for Civic Space, with support from the Ford Foundation.

It aims to monitor the legal, institutional and policy frameworks in which civil society organisations operate; promote and protect civic space; and act as a platform for dialogue between key civil society actors.

The Observatory will conduct a Global Survey of Civic Space, to provide a strong evidence base and data on the status of civic space and civic engagement. This initiative aims to guide and inform policy-making surrounding civil society as it continues to face increasing pressures and attempt to capitalize on the potential of the digital transformation.

Thank you


[1] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/dcr-2018-11-en.pdf?expires=1570553051&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=9C085A3707FE31CDE1EC3AC2298A7600

[2] OECD (2019), An Introduction to Online Platforms and Their Role in the Digital Transformation, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/53e5f593-en

[3] Ibid.

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