University of Georgia Professor Peters, of Grady College and School of Law, presents on digital freedom of assembly in EU-funded project supporting civil society in West Balkans and Turkey

Pleased today to welcome a contribution from our colleague Jonathan Peters, an associate professor who has faculty appointments in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Law at the University of Georgia. Dr. Peters teaches and researches in the area of media law and policy, and his post here discusses his participation November 4 in an online panel about freedom of peaceful assembly.

I had the opportunity last week to be part of an event hosted by Technical Assistance to Civil Society Organisations in the Western Balkans and Turkey (TACSO), which is a project funded by the European Union (EU) that provides support to civil society organizations (CSOs) in the region to help them contribute to public debate and democratic processes.

The two-day event, organized in cooperation with the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), gathered dozens of CSOs and public institutions for panels about emerging issues and trends affecting civil-society work and for exchanges about best practices in monitoring and advocacy.

I spoke on the panel “Freedom of Assembly in a Digital Age: Monitoring Online Assemblies,” along with my colleagues Francesca Fanucci, senior legal advisor at ECNL, and Florin Gisca, legal expert at Promo-LEX. Francesca covered digitally-mediated assemblies in general, and Florin explained efforts in Moldova to monitor such assemblies, while I discussed my work for ECNL to develop a related monitoring tool for use in the region and beyond.

Traditionally, the definition of peaceful assembly included physical gatherings of individuals to protest, commemorate, exchange views, and so on. But our increasingly digital world has opened up new ways to organize assemblies and new spaces in which to hold them. Digitally-mediated assembly is the umbrella term for all types of assemblies with a digital component, of which there are basically three:

  1. Digitally-enabled assemblies: These occur in a physical space but are facilitated by digital communication technologies.
  2. Digitally-based assemblies: These are sometimes called online assemblies, and they occur entirely in a virtual space, typically on a social media platform.
  3. Hybrid assemblies: These have elements of digitally-based and digitally-enabled assemblies.

For example, people have gathered online during the pandemic to express common sentiments and to protest everything from public health mandates to abortion restrictions. This has happened all over the world and in particular in Europe: in Hungary, Moldova, and Poland. Where physical protests have been suspended or unsafe to organize, they have frequently moved online.

With that in mind, on last week’s panel I discussed my ongoing work to develop a monitoring tool to allow CSOs to collect data about digitally-mediated assemblies to provide understanding of how they take place and the extent to which they are enabled, facilitated, and protected by government and private actors—as well as any special opportunities and challenges that such assemblies present.

  • Among the opportunities: Digitally-mediated assemblies can be easier to organize, they can reduce physical dangers to participants, and they can simplify administrative procedures for organizers.
  • Among the challenges: Digitally-mediated assemblies can be disrupted by platform content moderation, they can be weakened by the digital divide, and they can be undermined by the viral spread of misinformation and disinformation.

This is just a selection of the issues that I hope monitors will be able to explore, and I’m eager to continue working with ECNL and others to support the CSOs that will do the actual monitoring.

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