Undertones: 2023, a year of narratives

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

“Geopolitical conflict is increasingly about identities and narratives, and who shapes them, and who has the power to shape them. We are in the midst of this shift, in ways that are quite scary, and in ways that make people who are trying to contribute their voices and perspectives more vulnerable to threat, more physically threatened, than ever.” 

- Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices Co-founder and Board Member, in preparation for Global Voices’ Council.

Welcome to our last Undertones of the year. The great themes of our times — the development of AI, wars, the climate crisis, and authoritarian trends — depend in great part on how we think and speak about them. This is what we have strived to do this year with the Civic Media Observatory (CMO): unpack the narratives surrounding our most pressing topics thanks to a systemized methodology and exceptional researchers. And we thank you, our readers, for staying connected with us throughout the year.

In 2023 we opened the CMO toolbox to our audience, which allowed a great variety of people to engage in it. We also met with policymakers, digital rights advocates, and journalists throughout the world in countless conferences and online gatherings in order to advocate for a new way of analyzing media. Samanta Azpurua, one of our coordinating editors, says it best:

For me, the CMO is more than a research tool. This methodology proposes a mindset for all people consuming content in media ecosystems. Our emphasis on context and subtext allows our readers to explore the origins, reasonings, and patterns behind the narratives shaping public debate, a great resource to deconstruct disinformation and misinformation and ultimately confront autocratic tendencies. Authoritarian propagandists can easily influence the public in the way information now rapidly flows in media ecosystems, and use free and fair elections to take over power and lead countries. This is why I firmly believe the CMO method can and must be part of the toolkit of the teams designing tactics to fight them.

The Community Civic Media Observatory

This year we launched the Community Civic Media Observatory, where we opened the methodology to whomever wanted to study narratives on their topic of interest. We published 20 newsletters and stories featuring the work of researchers and journalists from Venezuela, Iran, Bolivia, Brazil, Russia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Netherlands, Israel, Zimbabwe, Argentina, India and Turkey. 

Thanks to the diversity of Global Voices’ authors and beyond, this was our most eclectic year yet in terms of topics. For example, Eddie Lywn studied pop culture and military narratives in Myanmar, Leon Ingelse dove into AI biases in the Netherlands, and Kelly Chaib investigated Russian chats in Argentina that supported Argentina’s now-president, Javier Milei.

Sencer Odabaşı, CMO researcher and scholar from Turkey, says:

What I find to be the most important aspect of the CMO’s method is its intuitiveness. Instead of chasing novelties, the CMO brings what one automatically assumes to be relevant — figures, groups, narratives and themes — and it systematizes information in an organic and interconnected way.

Opening the project to the community also shows that anyone can learn and use the CMO to deeply analyze how narratives are carved in our societies, how they move online, and how they impact our civic discourse.

Fatima Zaidi, CMO researcher and journalist from Pakistan, says:

The Civic Media Observatory serves as a vital platform for observing and analyzing digital media conversations. In today's context, the digital media sphere plays a pivotal role in shaping public opinions and influencing governmental involvement in crucial decisions. For me, the CMO represents a unique opportunity to delve into subjects often overlooked by mainstream media, either due to censorship or lack of interest.

Here are a few examples of our work this year. You can find the full archive here.

Iran's powerful narratives about religion and rebellion

The Kremlin’s tactics to enlist more men to warTranswomen in Pakistan reclaim their ancestral heritage

Portugal and the myth of the good colonizer

Climate change narratives, through Indigenous eyes

The CMO methodology can be adapted to fit different kinds of projects. For example, elements of the methodology were used in “Ropeia Taperai” (“Opening Paths” in Guaraní), a project Global Voices did in collaboration with the Latin American non-profit Avina Foundation. Here, the emphasis was on media literacy. 

Indigenous youth in Bolivia’s Gran Chaco region were taught to read media narratives about climate change and resource exploitation, and suggest narratives of their own. The project continued in 2023 in high schools, as Guaraní journalist Isapi Rua explains in her story:

Where you might have seen us this year

In 2023, we participated in a number of conferences and symposiums online and around the world. Last March, Giovana Fleck, our Project Lead, represented us at the music, film, and emerging technology festival SXSW (South by SouthWest) in Austin, Texas. 

At SXSW, the Future of Data Challenge awarded Global Voices with USD 100,000 for a new Civic Media Observatory project focused on data governance. Thanks to this award, we will be able to study the narratives on data used for governance, control, and policy in El Salvador, Brazil, Turkey, Sudan, and India throughout 2024.

Photo from Giovana Fleck, used with permission.

Fleck also traveled to Japan to participate in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), organized by the United Nations, to discuss public policy issues related to our work.

Photo from Giovana Fleck, used with permission.

You might also have seen us at the Mozilla Festival, more commonly known as Mozfest, sharing our methodology in-depth in various sessions online and in Amsterdam.

In May, we participated in Access Now’s RightsCon, one of the largest summits on human and digital rights, in Costa Rica. There, Fleck talked about our work covering networked authoritarianism.

I also presented our work on digital authoritarianism in Germany, at the Global Media Forum, organized by Deutsche Welle, last June. We adapted the CMO methodology to analyze narratives surrounding tech and digital authoritarianism in more than 20 countries in a project called the Unfreedom Monitor.

Photo from Melissa Vida, used with permission.

Our wing working on digital authoritarianism also met at the Digital Rights Asia Pacific (DRAPAC) Assembly in Thailand, organized by EngageMedia last May, among other encounters.

Interactive reports

We invite you to review our interactive reports of our work analyzing media ecosystems in nine countries in 2021 and 2022. Many of the narratives that we studied are still, if not more, relevant today. 

In order to access the reports, users will need to create an Airtable account linked to Global Voice’s workspace. Therefore, Global Voices will have access to e-mail addresses, but will not store this data. Read Airtable Terms of Service for more information. If you’d like a PDF version, please respond to this e-mail or send a message to giovana.fleck@globalvoices.org

What’s next?

Civic Media Observatory on Data Governance

As mentioned earlier, we are happy winners of the Future of Data Challenge, tasked to find and analyze how data governance is talked about and dealt with in El Salvador, Brazil, Turkey, Sudan, and India. We are currently training researchers; this will be our main project in 2024. Undertones will keep on going, but perhaps at a different pace next year.

Open to collaborating with you

We are always open to collaborating with you. Whether you are a scholar, a journalist, a data scientist, or an activist, or whether you represent a university, a media, or an organization, we want to hear from you and see how we can work together. We believe that the best outcomes come from synergies with people like you.

Thank you

Finally, our work would not be complete without people witnessing it. Thank you so much for keeping tabs with us throughout the year, giving us your feedback and encouragement, and sharing this newsletter so that others can learn and enjoy it. So, cheers to you.

See you in 2024,

Melissa Vida and the team: Giovana Fleck, Asteris Masouras, Samanta Azpurua, our researchers and Global Voices editors.

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