Interviewee: Dr. Thamy Pogrebinschi
Interviewer: Anna Paula Bennech, M.A.
Edited and reviewed by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon
Thamy Pogrebinschi is a senior researcher at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, faculty member of the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS) at the Humboldt University Berlin, and associate researcher of the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). She was the founder and coordinator of the LATINNO project (2015-2021), which built the largest existing database on democratic innovations evolved in Latin America. She published several books in Brazil, and her research on participatory democracy has been published in dozens of book chapters and journal articles, among which Comparative Politics and European Journal of Political Research.
The first phase of your current project highlights collective intelligence as a key resource for coping with the challenges brought to the forefront or caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to state capacity, collective intelligence is unlimited, always accessible, and faster. Within this framework, if you could choose only one Brazilian experience to illustrate the role of civil society in endangered democracies, which one would it be and why?
Collective intelligence may indeed be somehow more resourceful than state capacity, as I argue in the article that led to the project, however it does not compete with it nor could replace it. Collective intelligence is actually able to expand state capacity, and it should be used by governments precisely to overcome the limits they face in accomplishing their goals and administering their territories. This approach is especially relevant in times of crisis and emergencies as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, but also in regular times when dealing with complex problems, seeking to formulate more legitimate laws or implement policies in more democratic ways, governments could – and should – rely on collective intelligence. In countries with low state capacity, collective intelligence should play an even larger role. A tool such as collaborative data mapping, for example, may enable governments that lack resources and infrastructure to address varied types of public problems, such as containing the spread of diseases like malaria and dengue, supporting populations affected by flooding or hurricane, designing a more effective public transport system, or curbing crime and violence. Technologies of collective intelligence enable the state to reach places where it has been absent and have access to information and data it would otherwise not be able to gather. Civil society is today the main propeller of such collective intelligence technologies, and any government willing to expand its capacities, besides acting more democratically and legitimately, should seek forms of collaboration with it.
Brazil is a fertile soil for collective intelligence to grow, enabling governments to become at once more democratic and effective. Besides having low state capacity, Brazil has high social inequality. There is thus an even greater need to reach places, communities, and groups which have been historically left aside from public policies. While governments have been unable or unwilling to include them, collective intelligence technologies can help bring them to the fore, for example, by making them visible, making their needs and demands noticeable, generating information and data on them, expanding their local/specific knowledge. On top of that, Brazil has been seriously threatened by authoritarian populism. The country’s democracy and its main political institutions have been gravely damaged by Bolsonaro’s far-right government, and his science-denialism has cost countless lives since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In such a scenario, civil society in Brazil, despite existing attempts to suppress the civic space, has been consistently strong, and recently it has become more empowered as a result of the expansion of digital technologies. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it has stepped in and created a large number of amazing collaborative initiatives, which mobilize collective intelligence to address a range of social, economic, and political problems. Many of those initiatives have had important outcomes and have been successful in different ways. However, their impact would have been much greater if governments at all levels relied on them, collaborating with civil society to address public problems and formulate more responsive policies.
In my project CoIntelBr we are mapping some of those initiatives created during the Covid-19 pandemic and there are so many fascinating experiences in different areas such as health, food security, education, gender, race, economy, knowledge, and information… It is hard to choose only one experience as exemplary, but I am a big fan of two initiatives, Rede Análise and Brasil.io, which have been collaboratively gathering, analyzing, and publicizing very important data. Their daily compilation of epidemiological data has been extremely relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic. These initiatives bring together an expressive number of people across the country, who collaborate by generating and sharing knowledge. The information and data disseminated by them should actually be provided by governments. Their work is a great example of collective intelligence generated by civil society which is made available to anyone, including governments that could (and should!) rely on it to design responses, take decisions, and improve policies.
Organized civil society has assumed a protagonist role in facing social and economic challenges catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thinking about a post-pandemic Latin America, how do you see the prospect for these initiatives? Do these organizations tend to adjust their focus but maintain their structures, or will they fade away and new ones emerge according to challenges brought up by new contexts [of crisis or not]?
I think the protagonist role assumed by civil society during the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America follows a trend initiated in previous years. As I showed in the final report of my LATINNO project, civil society has been progressively increasing its role in democratic innovation in Latin America. The number of democratic innovations created by civil society in 2020 is 62% higher than in 2010. The pandemic accelerated and exponentiated this trend. It was definitely a trigger, but it is for sure not the only factor leading to such protagonism. The role of civil society on democratic innovation has been growing over the last decade, along with the expansion of digital technology and state retraction. As I demonstrated in the report, between 2008 and 2010, governments created two times more democratic innovations per year as civil society did. While between 2018 and 2020, civil society came close behind and was responsible for almost as many democratic innovations as governments. So even before the pandemic, civil society was increasing its role.
Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic furthered the role of civil society and did so in a shorter period. The LATINNO data shows that 54% of democratic innovations created in 2020 were introduced by civil society organizations, 84% of which have no government involvement at all. The pandemic has also boosted digital technology as a means of citizen participation: 75% of democratic innovations handling the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 rely on digital participation.
Based on those trends from the last decade, considering both the retraction of the state in the promotion of democratic innovation and the expansion of digital technology, I believe the role of civil society in Latin America will likely increase in the coming years. In some countries, democratic innovation may become primarily driven by civil society and no longer by governments. Some initiatives created during the Covid-19 pandemic may fade away for sure, which will most probably happen with those aimed specifically to address problems related to the sanitary crisis. But many organizations and collaborations that evolved during the pandemic are likely to remain since problems related to health, food security, education, gender violence, and disinformation, for example, existed before the pandemic and will just be worse after it is over.
In the LATINNO final report, I mention three tendencies for civil society. First, it is likely to increasingly rely on digital technology, making the implementation of its initiatives less dependent on governments and international organizations. Second, it tends to play a greater role in creating democratic innovations aimed at political inclusion as it progressively embraces feminist, anti-racist, and environmental agendas. And third, CSOs tend to target representative institutions, pushing participatory innovations, for example, in and within Legislatures. It should also promote innovations in representation, such as activists’ candidatures and collective mandates, which have been growing a lot in Brazil in recent years.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, science denial and misinformation have also marked Brazilian politics, especially since the 2018 elections. Considering the potential of organized civil society and the second phase of your research project, how can collective intelligence combat disinformation in the context of the 2022 elections?
The regulation of internet platforms and social media, content moderation, the use of artificial intelligence to control the quality and dissemination of information, fact-checking attempts by mainstream media and democratic governments and parties are all proving difficult against the spread of fake news. In this context, collective intelligence arises as a potential weapon to fight misinformation and disinformation.
A rising number of organizations and initiatives in Brazil advance collective intelligence to generate knowledge, fact-check information, detect misinformation, gather and share accurate data, and produce counter-narratives. They try to promote the truth and raise awareness against political falsehood in different ways. Some of them have played an important role during the Covid-19 pandemic, and they should also have a key role during the electoral campaign in 2022.
Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro has used the state machine and his supporting network to manufacture and disseminate disinformation and misinformation that may have cost many thousands of lives. The government has heavily disinformed citizens about the seriousness of the virus, the need for social distance, and the urge for vaccination. Moreover, Brazil’s Ministry of Health has dangerously misinformed citizens by promoting inexistent and ineffective treatments against Covid-19. However, while the government has hidden and manipulated official numbers of cases and deaths, civil society combined collective intelligence and digital technology to obtain accurate information and data, for example, by creating collaborative databases and geolocation maps to monitor the evolution of the pandemic and oversee governmental responses. Some of the initiatives have done an amazing job with vulnerable communities and groups, such as indigenous peoples and quilombolas.
In 2022, misinformation and disinformation will pose threats to the elections, but we should see more citizen journalism as we did see citizen-science science during the Covid-19 pandemic. The civic crowdsourcing of knowledge, data, and information can be very helpful, along with the fact-checking work already done by several civil society organizations. Collective intelligence may counteract disinformation and misinformation by gathering and spreading verified information, as well as opening, decoding, and sharing reliable data. One can also expect that some of the many collaborations that evolved during the Covid-19 pandemic among experts, researchers, journalists, and data scientists may remain in place to fight fake news and produce counter-narratives grounded on true knowledge.
In addition, Brazil’s civil society may improve the digital monitoring of the electoral process as has been done in other countries in Latin America. Internet platforms and mobile apps have been developed to oversee elections and curb electoral malpractice, for example, by monitoring electoral campaigns, polling stations, and vote counting. Those digital tools enable collaborative fact-checking and enable citizens to report irregularities in real-time using geolocation in their smartphones. If electoral authorities are willing to benefit from collective intelligence, the information gathered by citizens may be channeled directly to them, expanding their capacity to monitor the electoral process.
Now, focusing on your previous project, LATINNO, Brazil has remarkable democratic innovations experiences, such as the famous Orçamento Participativo. However, the executive branch has still maintained protagonism in this field. Considering the populist turn of the current government, what institutional alternatives do you see to protect these initiatives from conservative governments in the future? Also, what are the possible links between collective intelligence and democracy?
Although democratic innovation in Brazil has always been characteristically state-driven, this is no longer the case since after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Participatory experiments have been seriously weakened during Temer’s government, and Bolsonaro attempted to extinguish all participatory institutions at the federal level through a decree. Since then, it is civil society that has assumed certain protagonism, mostly advancing digital participatory processes and mechanisms. But Bolsonaro managed to destroy Brazil’s vast participatory architecture, shutting down dozens of extremely important participatory institutions, including national policy councils and national conferences on public policies.
We learned from this that the endurance of democratic innovations is strongly compromised by their lack of institutionalization. Only those participatory institutions created by law could not be demolished by Bolsonaro, thanks to a decision of the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, he made the work of those remaining participatory institutions impossible, cutting resources and preventing civil society’s representatives from working.
While democracy is increasingly threatened by populism and authoritarianism, it is crucial to institutionalize democratic innovations by enshrining them in constitutions and laws. Legislation should also ensure that participatory institutions have the necessary resources to keep working regardless of government changes. In the face of frequent threats of suppression of the civic space, the institutionalization of democratic innovations should include rules to prevent them from being co-opted by governments and misappropriated by political parties. It should also ensure freedom and protect the rights of civil society organizations and activists, as well as prevent intimidation and violence against them.