désinformation

 

  • ‘Civil society needs a compelling counter-narrative’

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Lynnette Micheni from PAWA254, an organisation that fosters social accountability and active citizenship among young people, mainly through arts and media.

    1.Your organisation, PAWA254, defines itself as a movement of young, socially conscious artists and activists. How do you connect art and activism in your work?

    We use art, pop culture and media as an empowerment tool. We believe in artistic expression as a means for social change and the deepening of democracy, and we harness it to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Kenyans, and against social and political vices, including corruption and abuse of power. As a result of our work, we have seen ‘artivists’ multiply, and a movement of active, freethinking youth emerge in our country.

    We work with a variety of arts and media, including photography, film, spoken word, poetry graffiti, cartoons, blogging and writivism, which has opened such great spaces for accountability in Kenya.

    Our programs are two pronged: some focus on the economic development of emerging creatives and activists and others on social accountability, all the while leveraging the arts, pop culture and media.

    The former entails developing the capacity of emerging artists and facilitating the integration of artistic expression for livelihoods development through the provision of a state-of-the-art co- working space consisting of creative suites, professional equipment, skills transfer and networking opportunities. PAWA convenes key annual events such as the PAWA Festival, an annual street festival that showcases East Africa’s visual and performing arts and disseminates the Kenya Photography Awards.

    Our social accountability programs entail using art and pop culture as a form of civic engagement through dance, poetry, graffiti, theatre, music, film and photography to spark civic participation by focusing attention on emerging social concerns in the country and to prompt action in the process. Key current interventions include Off-The-Record, a weekly space where participants can express their thoughts on issues affecting society strictly off the record, with no fear of censorship or repercussions; #JengaHustle, an initiative aimed at advancing policies regarding employment and decent jobs for youth; #EmergingVoices, an intergenerational leadership development project aimed at empowering emerging social justice organisers and #ARealManIs, a transformative masculinity project aimed at leveraging media in mobilising young men’s fight against gender-based violence.

    2. Does artivism, and activism in general, face any challenges in Kenya?

    Indeed. Civil society is currently fighting a battle for its legitimacy, and it’s not winning. From every podium, including national television, the government is pushing a narrative discrediting civil society. Last year, two prominent human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down over their alleged non-compliance with regulations, including tax and employment laws, and for operating without a licence. There have been attempts to de-register other organisations as well.

    The prevailing narrative is that activists and CSOs are donor-funded disrupters. The idea is also being disseminated that people do it for the money. If you mobilise, you are asked: ‘how much have you been paid?’ – like there is no other driver than money. Ideas or visions of change don’t count. They will say that critical civil society activists and organisations are ‘Soros people’ - implying they are being funded by the Open Society Foundations and are therefore puppets of foreign interests. It is very difficult to counter this narrative when it is constantly being propagated on national television.

    It is also a challenge that there is a growing apathy amongst young people who are very well aware of their constitutional rights, resulting in an overreliance on individual activists.

    3. What is being done in response to this?

    What needs to be done is put together and disseminate a compelling counter-narrative. We know this is difficult because the problem has deep roots. So, the first thing we need to do is understand why it is so easy for governments to target civil society, in Kenya and elsewhere.

    We first heard about ‘fake news’ a couple of years ago, and it was all happening far away, in the USA. But the trend has progressed very fast, and in the context of presidential elections last year we suffered an epidemic of fake news. It was all over social media, which is a major source of information for Kenyan citizens, and it distorted the political conversation, and maybe the outcomes of the elections as well. Young people, the group that most uses social media, were particularly misled by fake news stories aimed at stirring conflict and dividing civil society.

    The abundance of fake news can be very disconcerting for young people that have little experience with interpreting data and are ill-equipped to tell the difference between legitimate and fake information. How do you sustain online movements while avoiding the infiltration of narratives based on fake news? How do you manage to bring online movements offline and keep them going in a context in which the political discussion is distorted to such extent?

    Young people are also particularly vulnerable to empty electoral promises of jobs and other benefits. Lots of promises are made at election times but no policies are ever enacted to fulfil them afterward. And people keep believing every time. The problem is that we have a whole generation of people who form their opinions based on headlines, and also build their activism on the basis of headlines – and under the headlines, there is usually no real content.

    The government is aware that evidence-based activism is lacking, and they do have smart and better prepared people, so they sometimes invite civil society to the table and pair them with a government technician, even on live television. Civil society activists are not always in a position to prepare adequately to respond. So it is difficult to connect and sustain civil society struggles, and instead it is so easy for the government to co-opt civil society actors.

    This is why we work to empower people, and young people in particular, to seek facts, to interpret them and understand their implications, to make decisions based on them, and to use them to monitor the government, hold it accountable and ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. We believe that arts, pop culture and media remain a viable tool to engage with the youth and are keen to continue investing in them.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with PAWA254 through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@Pawa254 and@LynnetteMicheni on Twitter.

     

  • CHILD RIGHTS: ‘Anti-child rights groups are making up stories to convince the public’

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks to Ilaria Paolazzi of Child Rights Connect and Mieke Schuurman of Eurochild about child rights and attacks by anti-rights groups.

    ilaria paolazzi and mieke schuurman

    Can you tell us a little about your organisations and the work you do?

    Ilaria: Child Rights Connect is the largest Geneva-based network of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on child rights. We have more than 90 members that are very diverse, including national, regional and international CSOs. Child Rights Connect is the expert organisation on the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child and the platform for joint civil society advocacy at the UN level. I’ve worked with Child Rights Connect for six years, and we are currently strengthening our coordination efforts with our members in the regions, for example in Europe with Eurochild.

    Mieke: Eurochild is a regional member of Child Rights Connect. We are a European network of children’s organisations with almost 200 members across Europe, including all the European Union (EU) member states but also in many other European countries. I’m responsible for our work on child rights and child participation. We campaign for children’s rights to be implemented at the European level and focus in particular on vulnerable children in Europe, with three key priorities: combating child poverty and the social exclusion of children; the de-institutionalisation of children – making sure that children don’t grow up in institutions; and making sure that child rights are included in all EU policies, legislation and programmes. We do this by working very closely with our members and directly with children. We advocate towards the EU and actively engage for child rights beyond EU countries, including with the Council of Europe.

    What are the main sources of attacks on child rights, and what role are anti-rights groups playing?

    Ilaria: Attacks and restrictions on child rights are coming mainly from non-state groups, but also from some states. They are coming under the banner of advocacy for the protection of the family and traditional values.

    Mieke:Our members have some serious concerns about anti-child rights movements in several countries in Europe. Particularly in countries such as Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia, there are anti-child rights movements, and these movements are gaining a lot of support. They use social media a lot, and use ‘fake news’ to be able to get their messages across, very much focusing on the cause of preserving the traditional family. Their messages are that child rights organisations are taking children away from their families, and this should not be accepted.

    The campaign in Bulgaria went so far that in the end the prime minister there decided to stop the draft of the new strategy for the child, which would have introduced for the first time a holistic approach for family policy, oriented not only towards vulnerable children but also towards family support, including non-violent parenting. The anti-child rights movement strongly campaigned against the proposed new strategy as an ‘unallowable intervention into the family’, raising public support through propaganda and disinformation, and eventually the government gave in. In their campaign, they even used the logos of children’s civil society and of the child helpline in Bulgaria, spreading disinformation on their work as ‘paid from external sources in terms of selling Bulgarian children abroad’. Across the EU there is a free single number that children can call if they need support and help; they campaigned against this, on the basis that if children need help they can go to their parents and so they have no need to call a child helpline.

    As a result of these movements, not only has development in child rights policies been stopped, but help and support to the most vulnerable children is being threatened.

    They create a lot of fear and uncertainty among families. Research has demonstrated that the key supporters of these movements are conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants, but there is also a lot of support from Russia, and from Belarus and Ukraine, and also partly from the USA. Funding is coming from these countries to support anti-child rights movements.

    It’s very hard for our members to campaign against it, because apparently these anti-child rights movements get something like 187,000 supporters on Facebook. We can question whether these are real supporters or fake ones, but it has the effect of mobilising a lot of uncertainty and uproar against children’s rights.

    Ilaria:There is currently a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN body responsible for monitoring the Convention on the Rights of the Child, who is Bulgarian and has been under direct attack from anti-rights movements in Bulgaria. These movements are generally very well informed and aware of what is happening at the international level and of the functioning of the Committee and they never miss opportunities to attack.

    In 2014, the FamilyPolicy.ru group issued a 97-page report, Ultra Vires Acts by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, that aimed to delegitimise and dismantle the mandate of the Committee, calling into question its core functions by saying, for example, that the observations and general comments it issues should only be of a general nature and not go into details. It also included a specific call on states to denounce the Convention and refuse to ratify its third optional protocol on a communications procedure. This was quite a direct and unprecedented attack.

    What do you think is new about these attacks, and where do they derive their power from?

    Mieke:I believe these groups have always existed. They have always supported the family and the strength of the family, and gone against the rights of children, believing that parents can decide for children what to do and what not to do.

    Maybe they have been able to increase their supporters very easily because of the opportunities given by social media. Also governments are not really doing anything against them. Civil society is not really being supported by governments. Governments are not making statements that support children’s rights or human rights. Some of our members are saying this is really what’s lacking now.

    Ilaria:They also seem to have resources – much more than child rights organisations – and therefore the means to mobilise.

    Mieke: That’s true. These anti-rights movements have a lot of funds. At the same time, the space for CSOs working on democracy and child rights is shrinking, which is particularly visible in terms of access to funding.

    Ilaria:Another factor that is pushing them to become more active is the advance of certain topics within the child rights discourse that weren’t so prominent before, such as the issues related to gender identities, LGBTQI children and children growing up in LGBTQI families. While the child rights movement has yet to properly integrate a gender perspective into its work, children themselves are raising the issue in front of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in front of the international community. But it’s something that’s adding onto the sensitive discussions around sexual and reproductive rights.

    Another emerging issue is the role that children are taking as environmental human rights defenders. While many stakeholders are opening their minds about children’s right to be heard and the importance of having space where children can exercise their civil and political rights, there has been a lot of hate speech against those children speaking out online and offline. This reflects the still pervasive vision of children as objects and not subject of rights.

    Mieke: What they are saying about LGBTQI rights is that people want to take away children to give them to gay foster families. They are opposed to sex education in schools.

    We increasingly get reports that when children speak in public at the local level, such as in city councils, child rights defenders often get negative reactions and are told to shut up. Children themselves are experiencing these negative attitudes, which is difficult for them to deal with.

    How is civil society, including your membership, responding to these challenges?

    Mieke: Our members in Bulgaria are quite active, and they are now very active on Facebook, trying to get as many supporters as possible, but still the group is smaller than the groups for supporters of anti-child rights movements. Anti-child rights movements are making up stories to convince the public that child rights are bad for children, and so we also need to share our stories about what we are doing and why child rights are important for children. Maybe in responding we need to use less the language of rights of children and talk more about the wellbeing of children and the need for children to grow up in safe families.

    Basically our members are trying to share their stories on social media and on television to try to get the mainstream public convinced about the importance of child rights. They say we shouldn’t engage with the extremists because we won’t be able to convince them, but we should instead target the public who might not have an opinion or who might not know yet what they agree with because they need to have the right information and need to know the other stories about child rights.

    Ilaria:As the international level we continue to try to draw the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s attention to national-level contexts and challenges so that it can take these into account when making recommendations to states. For example, we made a reference to the Bulgarian and European context in our public statement to the Committee’s opening session in May 2019.

    We are also always alerted about initiatives brought by anti-child rights movements on the protection of the family to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where there is always a danger around the corner. Here we collaborate and coordinate with CSOs beyond our membership and that are working on different topics, such as the human rights of older persons, in order to be aware of, and respond collectively, to such initiatives.

    We did a lot of work in 2014 when the UNHRC adopted a resolution on the protection of the family and organised a subsequent panel. Many initiatives around this sought to introduce the idea that the family, understood as the nuclear family, has rights as a unit, without acknowledging the human rights of individual family members such as children, the different forms a family can take, and the responsibility of states to protect the rights of individuals and intervene, when appropriate. Child Rights Connect coordinated advocacy to offer states an alternative, more consensual angle, which was effective for finding constructive compromises during the negotiation of the resolution and also for reaffirming children’s rights during the discussions on protection of the family.

    In 2017, we did the same in the context of a seminar on the protection of the family and disability organised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This year luckily nothing has happened, but we are always monitoring the situation and this is ongoing work, because child rights organisations working on specific issues might not be aware of these dangers.

    We are also following and being alert about the discussions around alternative care of children with disabilities. In this context, some have been raising the issue of whether a right to a family exists or should exist. While we acknowledge the key role that families play for children, we think this is very dangerous for child rights in general, as it is not in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and opens up discussions around the rights of the family. So we are trying to empower everyone to understand the international law and the implications on child rights.

    From 2017 we started to prioritise work on civil society space for children and children human rights defenders. What we have seen was that in moving beyond Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the right to be heard, which was the main basis for claiming child participation rights until now, the human rights defenders framework and UNHRC resolutions on civil society space are helping us to talk about children’s civic and political rights. This is still quite an underestimated issue for many, and not only states, but also the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, academia and child rights CSOs that are traditionally focusing on the economic, social and cultural rights of children.

    When it comes to the fundamental freedoms of children, there is not a specialised CSO advancing the topic at all levels, and international human rights CSOs working on civil and political rights in general do not integrate a child rights-based approach in their work. There is still a big gap out there that Child Rights Connect is trying to fill through the angle of children human rights defenders.

    What further responses are needed?

    Mieke:I think the challenges are to make sure we get enough allies among civil society, in other fields, such as women’s rights organisations and disability organisations.

    It’s also a question of resources, because if you continually have to be on social media to respond or share your stories, it takes a lot of time and human resources to do that work and you need funding to do this, so that’s also a big challenge. The need for measures to straighten media literacy is also crucial. We really need to find foundations and organisations that are able to support us and fund our work.

    And then there is the challenge of getting states to speak up. Now we are trying to get the EU on board, to have a louder voice and tell states that they should support civil society in campaigning for children’s rights.

    Ilaria:I think we have started, but we need to do more to connect children’s rights to human rights and work more closely with human rights CSOs and actors. I think the collaboration we’ve had with CIVICUS is emblematic. The Committee on the Right of the Child’s Day of General Discussion, held every two years in Geneva, helps. The 2018 Day on the theme of ‘protecting and empowering children as human rights defenders’ was an opportunity to strengthen the collaboration not only with CIVICUS but also with Amnesty International, International Service for Human Rights and other human rights CSOs.

    We need to continue to make everyone understand what it means to apply a child rights-based approach. There are still too many who approach children as a solely vulnerable group or child rights as a theme and not as something that relates to everything, or that is impacted on by all human rights work.

    Our work on children human rights defenders is helping this by making children be recognised as civil society actors and making all under-18 human rights defenders be recognised as children. However, we need to do more to clarify how to strike the balance between the protection and empowerment of children who act as defenders.

    We keep hearing that children shouldn’t be exposed to risk by being called ‘defenders’ because it is a sensitive terminology, and we keep explaining that of course this must be taken into account for specific contexts, but it’s not an excuse for overlooking children’s civil and political rights. So we need to be sure we are taking criticisms in the right way, and addressing them appropriately.

    Going back to the family rights issue, I think there is a need to also stress and clarify the positive role of families within the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and also say loudly that it’s not that human rights organisations are against families, which is one of the main claims made by anti-rights groups, and be clear that the existing human rights framework does give them certain rights, along with responsibilities and duties. One of our members had encouraged the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold a Day of General Discussion on the role of parents and families in the realisation of children’s rights, with the objective of clarifying how states can best support parents and families in all their forms in order to ensure a healthy and nurturing family environment for children, but this wasn’t yet followed up by the Committee. But we are still exploring and working on this idea to help advance a positive discourse that counters anti-rights attacks.

    What support, including from other parts of civil society, would most help make a difference to child rights?

    Ilaria:I would say what would help us the most would be to mainstream effectively the protection, promotion and fulfilment of child rights in general. We welcome very much the roundtables between the OHCHR civic space unit and Geneva-based CSOs that CIVICUS is starting to organise. We participated recently and are really keen to use this to advance the mainstreaming of child rights within the UN human rights system, which is a big challenge.

    Children and child rights are not yet taken seriously. We are really far from being there, and we are fighting constantly at all levels to be heard and for children’s views to be considered, because in many cases children are just given the space to talk for the sake of giving them a face and then nothing happens with the recommendations and the things they share. There is still a lot to do here and this should be a multi-stakeholder joint effort.

    Get in touch with Child Rights Connect through itswebsite andFacebook page, orfollow@ChildRightsCnct on Twitter.

    Get in touch with Eurochild through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@Eurochild_org on Twitter.

     

  • CONSPIRACY THEORIES: ‘When social trust has been eroded, people don’t know what to believe’

    Chip BerletAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet,an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.

     

    You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?

    Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.

    Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?

    Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.

    The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.

    We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.

    Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?

    I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.

    In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.

    In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.

    Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.

    Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.

    In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.

    Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?

    There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.

    But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.

    Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?

    There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.

    In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.

    Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.

    In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.

    How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?

    I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.

    Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”

    Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.

    It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?

    Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.

    Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.

    In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.

    You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.

    Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Chip Berlet through hisFacebook profile andAcademia page, follow@cberlet on Twitter, and visit Chip’sonline resources page on these topics.