Jonáš Syrovátka, IRI's Beacon Project Visiting Fellow
April 13, 2023
In the past decade, civil society in Central and Eastern Europe proved its vitality when numerous initiatives aiming to tackle the challenge of disinformation emerged. These civil society actors conducted numerous activities significantly varying in their content, scope and target audience. Spontaneous growth of this sector had its unquestionable advantages, allowing it to react quickly to different aspects of the challenge and adopt solutions reflecting the needs of specific countries or societies. However, it also brought obstacles since it led to the lack of shared approaches, limited exchange of information and compartmentalized individual initiatives to separate silos in individual countries. The lack of coordination oftentimes limited the ability to effectively lobby for solutions on the political level and, therefore, it caused that in many countries of the region, political and institutional response to the problem of disinformation lacks behind activities of civil society.
Therefore, one of the key tasks of initiatives like the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project is to provide a platform allowing for the coordination of civil society actors focusing on the topic of disinformation. However, to do this task effectively, it is crucial to know the members of this community. To gain this knowledge, IRI conducted its second Community Mapping survey that assesses the capacities, needs and opinions of civil society actors that focus on disinformation. By March 2023, almost sixty institutions and individuals submitted responses. These organizations operate in various sectors – think tanks, media or academia, and primarily but not exclusively come from Central and Eastern Europe. While responses are still being gathered before it will be presented on an interactive dashboard (see previous survey results), this blog post aims to provide the first insight into the responses and highlight several important themes resonating among respondents.
The results of the questionnaires demonstrated how vibrant the community focusing on disinformation. In 2022, respondents organized almost four hundred events focused on the general public, their work was frequently quoted in the media, and a significant number of them provided consultations to politicians or private companies. However, it remains a challenge to sustain their activities since two-thirds of respondents admitted that keeping their financing sustainable is an issue. Financial uncertainty appears to be more acute for smaller and less institutionalized non-governmental organizations, which are presented as an important segment of the community focusing on disinformation. Therefore, it is important to provide a platform that might connect these organizations with counterparts with similar topics of interest in other countries and facilitate the creation of larger consortiums eligible to apply for larger grants from more diverse funders to improve financial sustainability.
The need to stabilize the sector is even more remarkable since a significant number of respondents claimed that they consider it important to go beyond monitoring online media and focus on more advanced research techniques, such as research across multiple information channels ranging from traditional media to brand new messaging applications. The use of artificial intelligence in working with data was mentioned as a possible game-changer that would improve research significantly. However, the ability of the community to take advatage of these innovative lines of research or broaden the scope of their source material themselves is limited since only a small portion of respondents mentioned they had knowledge of programming languages or other technical skills required to utilize these approaches, therefore, they are regularly limitted to ready made tools provided by private suppliers – for instance, Facebook’s CrowdTangle, or commerical media monitoring tools. Similarly, the lack of capabilities and funds limited the ability to better understand disinformation's impact on human behavior and the formation of their opinion, the topic highlighted as important by a large number of respondents. Therefore, the community apparently need not only more resources but also to get more training to improve their skill set and get access to tools to help them to conduct innovative research.
The crucial condition for research innovation is communication among individual researchers and learning from each other. However, to achieve that, it is important to set the same ethical and methodological guidelines making research comparable and transferable. The lack of shared terminology can nicely exemplify the fact that this framework is currently largely lacking. The majority of respondents agreed that the catchphrase encapsulating their research interest is indeed disinformation. However, when asked how to label platforms inclined to multiply them, answers differed with terms like alternative media, fringe media or disinformation outlets being mentioned. This lack of clarity is hardly surprising since only a smaller number of organizations filling in the survey had some sort of formal methodological or ethical guidelines in place. The good news is that respondents identified their lack as a problem that has to be overcome, which gives hope that they would answer positively to suggestions to create a set of principles guiding their research.
For sustaining a vibrant and active ecosystem of organizations focusing on disinformation, it is crucial to find ways to overcome challenges related to lack of funding, limited skill set and availability of research tools and lack of shared ethical and methodological standards. These problems can most effectively be addressed on an international level, with forums providing space for discussion, mutual learning and coordination. Initiatives such as IRI Beacon Project, are logical actors to promote them. The Community Mapping questionnaire proved that there is great demand for their work, and therefore, their activities must continue to the benefit of civil society in the region.
Community Mapping Survey can be filled here