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Monitoring online hate speech during elections in Kyrgyzstan

EPD’s Media Dialogue provides a framework for an innovative approach to monitoring online hate speech in Kyrgyzstan, presented by Ben Graham Jones with contributions from Tanja Hollstein and Magdalena Randall-Schab from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Find the full article on the monitoring tool on Media Dialogue’s website.

As the Covid-19 pandemic pushes for digital transformation, election analysts face the challenge to effectively monitor election campaigns online. That is why election observation actors at the EU level, from governments to civil society organisations, are developing new ways to observe these campaigns. Among these, EPD member Democracy Reporting International (DRI) has developed a standard methodology and is planning to publish a detailed online toolkit for public use to monitor social media during elections. DRI also contributed to the EU’s Guide for Civil Society on Monitoring Social Media During Elections. At the same time, the EU’s Election Observation & Democracy Support project has been collaborating with experts to develop methodologies for online monitoring.

The systematic analysis of online hate speech during elections has received less attention than other aspects, perhaps due to its complexity and contested nature. To bridge this gap, as part of the Media Dialogue consortium led by EPD with funding from ALDA, the Independent Union of Journalists (IUJ) of Kyrgyzstan and media organisation Kloop have developed a unique and innovative approach to monitoring online hate speech. Their definitional framework relied on the toolkit designed by Article 19, another EPD member organisation spearheading change in the field.

The two organisations overcame several challenges. For instance, Kloop worked to find alternative ways of deploying word embeddings to observe Kyrgyz-language hate speech, due to the fact that Google Universal Sentence Encoder does not yet support Kyrgyz. These efforts and the ongoing development of a user-friendly interface prove the innovative and accessible nature of their collaboration under EPD’s Media Dialogue.

The Independent Union of Journalists (IUJ) worked to present the results of an analytic methodology that has so far assessed more than 7,000 articles. The IUJ’s methodology included the groundbreaking development of the first (to our knowledge) dictionary of terms associated with hate speech in the history of Kyrgyzstan. It laid the foundation for the automated analysis of a quantity of data that would have been unimaginable through manual means, therefore giving a sense of how prevalent hate speech can be at election time. To ensure that legitimate political discourse is not conflated with hate speech in future research, human analytic interpretation will still be required to verify and interpret these findings.

Work was undertaken not only to monitor, but also to actively prevent hate speech. In the framework of the Media Dialogue project, EPD member WFD collaborated with both the Central Electoral Commission of Kyrgyzstan and the civil society organisation Civic Platform to set defined standards against hate. This project saw the development of a memorandum of understanding and online consultations with political parties: the latter committed to not using social media to denigrate opponents and spread hate speech.

As Kyrgyz citizens are headed back to the polls on 10 January, it will be crucial to keep the conversation moving across and beyond the civil society sector, all the while employing Media Dialogue’s findings to identify how to best tackle hate speech and other online threats to elections. The next challenge will be to connect these experiences and knowledge in the CSO sector with the wider debate on ways forward for both international election observation and domestic election observation in other countries.

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