Re:think Alliances: Forging unlikely connections for democracy
By Annamária Tóth
It is up to you. As blunt as this may sound, it is as easy as that when it comes to strengthening the democratic fundamentals that our communities are built on. The programme leader of the European Forum Alpbach Foundation’s Re:think Alliances reflects on what it takes to introduce real change to democratic decision-making.
Over the past year, the European Forum Alpbach has worked on a new initiative that centres around the question of how to build a diverse alliance — including democracy experts, activists, artists, media and PR experts, businesspeople and influencers — to strengthen democracy, open society, and social cohesion in Europe. We have been collecting success stories of local engagement and online activism initiated by determined individuals from all around Europe. Examples from the town of Ostritz in East Germany, to a “love army” built in Sweden, the greatest civil society movement in Slovakia since the fall of the Iron Curtain, as well as a non-partisan political movement in Switzerland have shown that anyone can stand up for democracy both in the digital space and in the analogue public sphere. Moreover, our initiative builds a consciousness for civic engagement as a democratic right and duty. To put it in the words of a participant, who has built up an online platform for sustainable fashion: “I realised that even my job, which is seemingly apolitical, has a social responsibility in building democracy.”
Wanted: unlikely allies
One of the goals of Re:think Alliances is to foster unlikely connections for democracy by bringing individuals to the table who are not typically involved in pro-democracy initiatives but carry a civic responsibility in shaping their communities. These “unlikely allies” not only bring new perspectives to the discussion but they also have a significant role to play in reaching out to audiences that the “usual suspects” of democracy promotion like the European Forum Alpbach, academics, journalists and NGOs or philanthropic players cannot reach.
In our opinion it is a matter of civic duty for everyone who believes that the fundamental principles of democracy should guide the ways in which individuals, communities and societies interact to change something. The most unlikely alliances between people who do not generally meet could generate the best results in a snowball effect. If the European Forum Alpbach starts a discussion about democracy, that discussion will reach a different audience to that of an online influencer with over 200,000 followers. The online influencer might also open up new ways of thinking about the issue and of transmitting the message.
Attacks on democracy are here to stay…
One of the motivations behind Re:think Alliances is that there is dire need to stand up publicly for democratic principles today and to be informed about the main forces undermining democracy. Attacks on democracy all over Europe will only get worse in the near future. Extremists and authoritarian forces work with a clear strategy, are well connected across many sectors, have sufficient funding, a compelling narrative as well as efficient and effective strategies of digital communication. These tactics were accelerated in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which, as the “mother of all crises” has served as a welcome source to exacerbate existing conspiracy theories. The Coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore many existing societal, political and economic fault lines, ranging from questions around privacy to political disenchantment and rising populistic tendencies. Add to this a fear of globalisation, the loss of jobs and uncertainties linked to megatrends like the digital transformation and the climate crisis and the picture becomes gloomy, to say the least.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. One part of the solution is technology. The algorithms underlying how information spreads online as of now do not necessarily rely on measurable facts, but rather on the emotional interactions they trigger in (fake or real) users in order to generate interactions. So changing the technology could help, but that is easier said than done.
… but so is pro-democracy activism
Another part of the solution is fighting networks with networks. Pro-democracy actors and initiatives are not connected through an overarching network structure like extremists do. Moreover, pro-democracy actors often struggle with creating a compelling narrative. More often than not, best practices are not shared across regions and borders. Public personalities or grassroots initiatives have to go through the very same struggles ranging from campaigning to funding and how to get organised. A few Europe-wide initiatives like the “European Hub for Civic Engagement” aim at closing this gap and make information sharing and exchange possible.
In a similar vein, Re:think Alliances grows a base of individuals and organisations effectively involved in strengthening democracy and social cohesion and fosters civic engagement amongst all members, particularly the “unlikely allies”. In the long run, their work should be supported by spot-on research by project partners on the socio-political context with the goal of equipping practitioners, activists and broader civil society with actionable insights on how to respond particularly to the challenge of disinformation.
The Fundamentals: connecting people through dialogue
With Re:think Alliances, the European Forum Alpbach brings its key expertise into the discussion: to act as a catalyst for good dialogue, meaningful exchange and lasting connections between people who do not usually meet. After all, democracy is very simple: “Durchs Reden kommen d’Leut zam” – talking brings people together, an Austrian proverb goes. When it comes down to it, democracy is about common sense-making through debating. In fact, people build trust through personal interaction, even if that interaction is conflictual. So, in times when conversations are getting more and more fragmented online and attacks on this fundamental principle of democracy are growing, the Forum’s role is to create networks of trust. In its 75-year anniversary, the Forum can’t but go back to its very roots and bring together all those individuals who want to shape their communities to the better.
Annamária Tóth is the Project Lead of “Re:think Alliances” at the European Forum Alpbach Foundation.
“Re:think Alliances” is an initiative of the European Forum Alpbach Foundation with the kind support of Stiftung Mercator GmbH, Stiftung Mercator Schweiz and the National Endowment for Democracy.
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