Are we digitalising civic movements?

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This blog was first published by Alliance Magazine on 29 October 2019.

During the EFC Grantmakers East Forum in Tbilisi, the donors in attendance were united when pondering the main question: How can institutional philanthropy support citizens and the new wave of civic activism? Catherine Herrold, the keynote speaker and expert on civil society working in the Middle-East noted, ‘We are all aware of the traditional role of grantmaking foundations that support civil society via formal structures such as NGOs, but increasingly younger generations, who are now becoming the main driving forces of change, are moving to informal spaces for their movements.’ Should we adapt to these new environments since we are becoming aware that, in this era, social movements will not be possible without the involvement of technology?

Grantmakers facing these new changes are also trying to experiment in this rapidly changing environment in order to build vital spaces for civil society actors and to connect and co-create. At the same time, civic space is re-energised by dynamic and fluid, new forms of grassroots communities that are searching and finding new formats for their online and offline engagement.

Salome Barker, a civil rights activist and one of the organisers of the non-stop 100 days ‘Shame Protests’ against the Georgian and Russian governments, in the summer of 2019, stated that technology played a significant role in mobilising people, and without the involvement of social media, their movement would not have been able to gather so many people and continuously invite newcomers to join. Everyone agreed that it is hard to mobilise people and do these actions successfully without online support. Thomas Lohninger, from Mozilla Foundation, wasn’t in favour of utilising social media as a mobiliser of activists united among joint causes. He expressed concerns about how ‘we should be aware of the risk of using free platforms such as social media to get the message out.’ He considered common social media platforms as an inappropriate ‘market place’ for CSOs because they are selling our attention, and our emotions are captured by the content. He believed that independent online platforms dedicated to civic engagements and CSOs could be a future potential meeting point for social movements.

Gabriella Benedek, from the Hungarian Roots and Wings Foundation, spoke from her own experience: ‘It is easier to unite people around topics and causes rather than around issues and problems. However, we should be aware that society has voices that need to be heard, and in countries where the environment is not in favour of CSOs work, digital platforms are offering a spacious room for civic activists.’

We cannot talk about all perspectives in a general way. We should always be aware of the importance of both online and offline presences in supporting citizen-led protection movements. Besides the potential of digital spaces that are enormous, we should never forget that algorithm schemes are behind each and every form of social media and that we could be easily ‘manipulated’ by the content we receive on our news feeds.

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