Workshop Insights: Strategies for Improving Online Discourse | Reclaiming social media | DW | 14.11.2023
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Reclaiming social media

Workshop Insights: Strategies for Improving Online Discourse

Gerald Walulya teams up with fellow researchers to discover innovative projects that enhance public discourse. Here he reflects on his research process and a workshop in the “Reclaiming Social Media” project.

As concerns over online harassment grow, determined researcher and educator Gerald Walulya teams up with fellow researchers to discover innovative projects that enhance the quality of public discourse on social media platforms. Here he reflects on his research process and a joint workshop held with other researchers in our “Reclaiming Social Media” project.

As a senior lecturer at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital Kampala, Gerald enjoys observing young media professionals embark on their careers. And this is exactly why he finds it all the more disheartening to see that some politicians in Uganda are attacking press freedom and publicly threatening journalists. This is especially true for women in high-profile roles, such as journalism or politics. Some of Gerald’s former students are also affected by online hate speech or even targeted attacks. Unfortunately, this experience has encouraged some of them to leave journalism and seek different careers. Gerald is a dedicated lecturer, researcher, and trainer with a strong passion for media freedom. His main goal is to make a positive impact on people’s lives by sharing information that empowers them to make informed choices.

Having witnessed young journalists and media professionals’ exposure to different forms of harassment, Gerald is even more driven to seek solutions that improve online discourse and foster constructive dialogue. As he explained in an interview with DW Akademie: “New ways of communication have emerged. And although we had high hopes that they would improve freedom of expression and access to information, they have amplified challenges like harassment, propaganda, and disinformation.” Gerald views his research as an opportunity to shed light on cases of harassment and the abuse of power. He works together with Solomon Serwanjja, a Ugandan investigative journalist and Executive Director of the African Institute for Investigative Journalism, to research how people conduct online discussions in East Africa. Together, they are part of DW Akademie’s “Reclaiming Social Media Project,” which brings together journalists and researchers from around the globe to explore and identify new ways to address the challenges posed by social media platforms. 

Combing the web for constructive alternatives

When Gerald started searching for innovative initiatives, he quickly realized it wouldn’t be easy. “Many social media initiatives in Africa are not properly documented and their founders are often not easy to reach,” he told DW Akademie. While many news outlets and journalists are continuously experimenting with new features on social media, these activities can’t be found using a simple search query. It took some time and many attempts for Gerald to identify interesting initiatives. Relying heavily on his network and contacts, Gerald said that it was often colleagues, acquaintances, and former students who could alert him to constructive social media projects.

“Innovations are emerging from the least expected places. Little did I know that a major innovation is taking place in neighbouring Burundi, one of the countries with the lowest internet coverage in Africa,“ he explained. The Burundi-based Yaga initiative facilitates online and offline dialogues on a wide range of sensitive issues, engaging politicians, decision makers, and young people. According to Gerald, the long search was worth it: “Yaga is particularly interesting because of its ability to blend online and offline audiences, thereby bridging the digital divide.” In the end, besides Yaga, Gerald was able to identify over 20 innovative initiatives.

Meanwhile, other researchers on the DW Akademie project had identified local initiatives in their regions: El Pitazo, a media outlet that circumvents Venezuelan censorship and circulates news via WhatsApp; Uli, a browser plugin that helps Indian Twitter users to blur hate speech in their timelines; as well as Severopolis, a Facebook group moderated by Ukrainian media workers to facilitate a safe dialogue space for people from the occupied Luhansk region.

Learning from media and journalists' initiatives: how to improve online dialogue

Having written case studies and articles on selected initiatives, our six regional researchers from Brazil, India, Lebanon, Ukraine, and Uganda came together at a workshop in Bonn to discuss the various initiatives they’d identified. Together with DW Akademie’s regional research and advocacy experts, they discussed techniques to improve constructive dialogue and effective moderation, as well as how to adapt to continuously changing environments. All the projects discussed had one thing in common – they rely on a small group of dedicated and motivated people working together towards the shared goal of improving dialogue. Often, these individuals put their own safety on the line and face considerable risks for their work.

“After reviewing these initiatives, we felt a collective moment of hope. This global research project shows us that there are innovative projects out there that are actually making a difference in how citizens interact with each other online. Even when you must comb through the whole internet to find them,” reflects Gerald.

He also emphasized how inspiring it was to engage in brainstorming sessions and discussions with fellow researchers who’d examined the same challenges in different contexts. Gerald added that this experience served as a reminder that many of these challenges transcend geographical boundaries, extending far beyond his native Uganda. The discussions highlighted the parallels that exist across diverse contexts, and the similar hurdles faced in fostering constructive dialogue on social media.

To conclude the workshop, the researchers gathered their insights and experiences to formulate first ideas for recommendations aimed at improving online discourse and addressing the challenges discussed. These ideas for recommendations combine research insights from around the globe with a solid overview of the necessary changes. As such, they provide a broad and informative framework for local and national consultants to assess their needs and responses.

Next steps in improving social media discussions

Our workshop participants agreed that while current initiatives are effective, their reach is still limited. The potential to significantly improve and scale up dialogue spaces is hindered by the reluctance of online platforms to change the algorithms and design features on which their business models are based. The ideas discussed included the need for social media platforms – such as Meta – to establish local oversight boards and moderation teams to help ensure a more nuanced understanding and moderation of cultural contexts and local languages.

In a collaborative effort, our participants also formulated a first set of recommendations targeting social media platforms, private actors, and governments, which are published here. These ideas combine research insights from around the globe with a solid overview of the necessary changes. As such, they provide a broad and informative framework for local and national consultants to assess their needs and responses.

Gerald and many of the other researchers expressed their ambitions to further discuss the recommendations, exchange best practices and develop them further, in collaboration with local organizations. To test these suggested recommendations in a local context, multi-stakeholder consultations are planned to be held in Kampala, Uganda. Stay tuned for updates on the outcomes and adaptations stemming from these collaborative sessions.