Lightroom: how to bring more light into electoral campaigns and reduce the aggressiveness?
by Irina Gotisan-Sotnic
What does it mean to conduct an electoral campaign? Is this a boxing ring where all the candidates are throwing punches or a race where the most compelling candidate wins? Is it an occasion for bashing the opponents and destroy their image or for presenting a well-developed government program? In elections, the ends justify the means or, however, common sense prevails?
All these topics were discussed at “The Lightroom (un)conference: aggression and ethics in electoral campaigns”.
It is a premiere for the Republic of Moldova to have an event which gives the floor for public discussions regarding psychological violence in the elections, posing a threat to a young state that builds its democracy. Psychological violence can take various forms like aggression, intimidation, harassment, humiliation, etc. and be directed to those who have other visions or political preferences.
In elections, not only the technical aspect matters — how well they have been organized and whether the rules have been respected. Their fairness also depends on the way in which all actors of electoral processes interact.
The Lightroom (un)conference was organized by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), with the support of UNDP Moldova. In the event’s opening the CEC’s chairperson, Alina Russu, noted that the Lightroom’s aim is to raise public awareness, as well to motivate the participants in the electoral race to be against the aggression in the electoral campaigns.
“Elections must not be a confrontation among people who think differently, but a competition in which the best wins, by realizing a campaign which promotes true values, and ethics and common sense are taken into account. In campaigns, it is not enough to demonstrate the attractiveness of an electoral program, but it is important that the political leaders, by their own example, are demonstrating what it means to defeat the opponent without using attacks, public defamation, by judging the idea and not the person. In the electoral campaign, voters, civil society and the media need to react promptly to aggression, when the lines of common sense are crossed and the unworthy behavior is promoted. “
During this year, the CEC, with the support of UNDP Moldova, carried out a comprehensive information and civic education campaign, focusing on the accessibility and inclusiveness of the electoral processes. The Lightroom event took place in the framework of this campaign, and on the eve of the parliamentary elections, the CEC wants to pull the alarm about the existence of a phenomenon that is not enough discussed in our society and which affects each of us.
UNDP Moldova Project Manager “Strengthening democracy through inclusive and transparent elections”, Eva Bounegru, mentions:
“The elections can be viewed as a litmus test of democracy, but not just the exercise from the election day must be free and fair, but also the electoral campaign as a whole. Campaigns around the world are subject to violent phenomena, affecting both women and men, whether electoral candidates, electoral officials, representatives of media or civil society. We hope that the information we get during Lightroom will serve for all of us as food for thoughts and together will find solutions to mitigate the negative effects of violence in electoral campaigns.”
At Lightroom, the audience had the opportunity to see and listen to the presentations of five speakers, each with a great expertise and experience in the areas they activate. The political analyst and founder of the Poliexpert Company, Igor Volnitchi, made a retrospective of how the aggression has evolved during electoral campaigns in the Republic of Moldova over the years. In his opinion, politicians are often aware that being aggressive they can increase their electoral rating. The expert argues that as a political consultant he is not the advocate of aggressive approaches in the electoral campaign, considering them as a lack of respect for voters.
Together with his team at Poliexpert, Igor Volnitchi elaborated a ranking of the aggressiveness of the politicians, which he presented to the audience:
“10% of politicians are aggressive because that is their nature, it is natural, at some point, to be aggressive. No matter how well they try to control themselves, they lose control over their own person, their own behavior, and reveal certain states of mind. 30 percent of politicians are aggressive or are acting as aggressive political actors as a response to the aggressiveness they were treated with. It is a natural reaction and from a psychological point of view, this can be explained. 60% of politicians do so because they are sure that this is what the electorate expects from them.“
The political expert points out that the tone of the electoral campaigns depends on the candidates involved in the electoral race.
“Usually, politicians have two possibilities. First: to educate the electorate in the spirit of certain values and principles, but this is a very difficult task and they realize that they do not have the necessary capacity to make such a literacy at the national level. And two: to identify an expectation in the society and to take advantage on it. The vast majority of the Moldovan politicians, 99 percent, choose the second path”, conclude the political analyst.
The media expert and executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Romania, Ioana Avadani, talked about the fights among the Internet users. In order to paint a comprehensive picture of these strives, she came up with some examples which reflect the referendum unfolded in Romania during October 6–7. The Romanian citizens were called to the polls to express themselves on the traditional family term, as the Constitution provides that a marriage can take place between two spouses, whereas the Civil Code mentions that it can only occur between a man and a woman.
“People called each other brainwashed, faithless, atheists. There were discussions about abnormalities, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Middle Ages. All these can be called “a festival of invective” at which both sides took part of. The disputes were terribly shuddering, some people were kicked out from the studio of some talk shows because they had other impressions or opinions regarding the referendum than the representatives, let’s say, of the official position.
You can imagine what happened on social networks and I refer here to Facebook because it’s the main social network in Romania with over 10 million accounts. And after all these outflows of humor, hatred, and shuddering, the turnout has barely surpassed 20 percent to vote.”
Ioana mentioned that in a report presented by Facebook this year, the network coordinators have detected more than half a billion of fake accounts.
“If there are so many fake accounts on Facebook, I am questioning myself: whom do we argue with and why do we argue? What if this is not about hatred, but about fear? What if these 583 million fake accounts want to sow not the hatred regarding a topic, but the fear and the feeling of insecurity? The feeling of mistrust among us and our closest people, our friends, members of our social network and, last but not least, the distrust in the leadership and administrations of our countries. All these things seem to be going in a strange direction: there are identified the sensitives topics and then they sow dissension, not necessarily to solve some problems, but to create tensions within society? Where are we going? “
The media expert pointed out that these situations are not characteristic only for Moldova or Romania. Ioana came up with relevant examples of discord that are happening in different EU countries and in the United States.
“The last frontier, the last redoubt in front of hate speech is not our heart, which may be good, but quick-tempered — but our brain, which must be educated. In this case, my advocacy is for media literacy and for something called resilience to hate. Which means not only the rejection of hatred but, also, the ability not to be influenced by it.“
Another speaker, the Program Director of the Center for Policies and Reforms of Moldova, Dumitru Alaiba, talked about character assassination phenomenon, which he explained in the following way:
“The character assassination refers to that situation when is killed the public image of a certain person, so we do not speak of assassination as such. It is a spectrum of personal attacks, from denigration to discrediting and demonisation, and is directed to a certain person because of the opinions he/she promotes.“
Dumitru pointed out that this phenomenon has only negative effects and it affects the democracy, freedom of opinion and of expression.
“People are discouraged from talking and expressing their opinions. And that makes a path for comfortable opinions only. The biggest mistake we can make is to respond with aggression and to condemn too vehemently some things even if we do not agree to them. This leads to the perpetuation of the phenomenon. It is important for such things to be condemned, not to be accepted by the public, and by no means to be believed. Critical thinking is the first thing I recommend, but also to inform yourselves from as many sources as possible.“
Natalia Vozian, a professional in the field of good governance and institutional transparency, spoke about “echo chambering” on social networks and what dangers it implies.
“Echo chamber is an isolated space in social networks where ideas, beliefs, but also opinions are promoted and mutually confirmed. It can be a space or a page on Facebook, or in another virtual space, but once entered into a polarized space, people tend to share and promote the same type of information, thus creating a mutual echo.”
Natalia mentioned that some recent research has shown that misinformation leads to selective exposure to information, which creates such spaces, and these spaces, in turn, lead to the shaping and consolidation of certain types of beliefs. In the expert’s view, people tend to integrate into online communities, groups or networks that support the same ideas or visions as they have and avoid the groups or networks where their opinions are questioned. If initially social networks were platforms where dialogue and communication were greatly encouraged, today they become spaces that create informational bubbles, states Natalia.
“In the electoral campaign conducted in 2016, the polarization of society, the manipulation, but also the spreading of false news occurred mainly on social networks. The phenomenon of echo chambering was quite intense and visible, and the sympathizers of both political sides promoted messages on two different social networks. On Facebook were created communities that actively supported a certain candidate, and Odnoklassniki was used for bold messages and aggressive propaganda. In this context, the polarization of society was becoming deeper and the space for communication and dialogue smaller. Also, many people who did not consent with the opinions or messages of other people — unfriended, blocked or unfollowed certain Facebook profiles, because they wanted to keep their online space polarized or well-defined in terms of the information they receive through it. At some point, there was a rather interesting initiative, called “Adopt an Odnoklassniki” campaign, in order to dilute the informational wave with other sources and to build a communication bridge between that two social networks.“
Angela Stafii, a Ph.D. in philosophy and a Life Coach, spoke, without filters, about the psychological violence. She claims that when we talk about violence there are not only the victim and the aggressor, but also the third character: the rescuer.
“When we write a caustic comment on Facebook or when we read a message that disturbs us in some way, or we see an image that afflicts us in a certain way, one of these roles is awakening. One of these roles is always present because we are identifying ourselves with one of them when fear, disgust, anger or irritation occur. And think about what kind of actions you take when you are overwhelmed by all these feelings. We are talking about the virtual space, but also about the election period. Who awakens in you when you are psychologically abused? Does the aggressor wake up? This is one of the favorite techniques of the left-wing parties from our country. Does the victim wake up? And here we have classical examples from our political scene. Or is the rescuer awakening? — I’m going to help you to join Europe!; I’m going to help you to join Russia; I’ll save you!; I’ll give you everything you need! — all these are political slogans.”
The Ph.D. in philosophy, Angela Stafii, spoke to the public about a model of a human interaction, which social psychology calls: Karpman’s triangle, which was conceived by Stephen Karpman, and defines how people act when they are in a conflict, what roles they play and what is the connection between them.
“When we enter this triangle of drama, either we become victims or become aggressors, or become rescuers, and if we become rescuers, we, the majority who are voters, what we choose to do? We chose to save our candidate and at the moment when you took this decision — to save your candidate - there will always be someone who will harass you, because this is the way how this triangle works.”
Also, in the framework of Lightroom, a video spot was launched, and the public was asked to choose one of the slogans proposed by the organizers, which were written on an improvised ballot paper, and at the end of the event, the participants voted.
“The Lightroom (un)conference: aggression and ethics in electoral campaigns” was organised as a part of the electoral information and civic education campaign “Democracy Matters”, initiated by the Central Electoral Commission. The campaign is conducted in the framework of the UNDP Moldova’s project “Enhancing democracy in Moldova through inclusive and transparent elections”, with the financial support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the British Embassy in Chisinau through the Good Governance Fund and the Embassy of Netherlands through the Matra Program.