Speech at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on World Press Freedom Day

These remarks were delivered at the start of a panel at the United Nations on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2019. Watch the panel. My remarks begin at the 1:20 mark.

This followed the Society of Professional Journalists media nonprofit summit a week earlier, known as Quo Vadis Democracy in an Age of Digital Disinformation.

 

Pictured from left to right, Ricardo de Guimarães Pinto, liaison officer for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Warren Hogue, senior adviser for external relations at the International Peace Institute and a former New York Times foreign correspondent, Meredith Broussard, associate director of the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Moderator Emanuele Sapienza, global policy specialist for civil engagement at the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at the United Nations Development Program, Stephen Adler, Editor-in-Chief of Thomson Reuters, and me.

 

Remarks at the United Nations on May 3, 2019

Thank you, Maher, and I’d like to extend my especial thanks to Ricardo for giving me this awesome privilege to represent my organization, the Society of Professional Journalists, here at the United Nations. It is an honor to be able to speak alongside such highly esteemed journalists. I had to pinch myself to make certain that I am actually speaking between Stephen Adler and Warren Hogue.

I also want to thank UNESCO for weaving together press freedom and electoral integrity into a timely theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day.

Although this is a global event addressing the challenges that disinformation poses to the core democratic values of press freedom and electoral transparency, an issue that has emerged again and again, from Brazil to India, it strikes me as appropriate that we’re meeting today here in New York.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which concluded with an all New Yorker finale, put the institutions that defend democracies worldwide on high alert.

To be sure, there was already no shortage of electoral threats, from unintentionally flawed ballots – think of the hand recount in Florida in 2000 – to outright forms of coercion.

Likewise, on the many long campaign trails, not a few politicians over the years have repeated half-truths and outright falsehoods in the hope that the election may be won by the time their deceptive campaign messages were debunked.

But in 2016, we woke up to the reality that freedom of expression itself had been weaponized.

The enemies of strong democratic values had learned a new trick. They had turned the power of self-expression on social media platforms — which only five years earlier had helped unleash the natural desire for self-determination in the Arab Spring — into a cloaking device that allowed them to wage a surreptitious influence campaign.

Social media bots generated by troll farms; deceptive political banner ads; and spear-phishing computer hacks coupled with selective leaks became low-cost, highly effective disinformation tools requiring little technological know-how.

Over the last two years, the major platforms have retaliated by employing internal checks, automated by algorithms, alongside small armies of human content moderators to try to combat the malicious trolls spreading deliberate disinformation. However, we know very little about these defensive maneuvers because the platforms are controlled by private companies not subject to the strictures of public entities obeying guidelines of transparency and accountability.

The organization that I represent, the Society of Professional Journalists, held a summit last weekend to discuss this nefarious synergy between anti-democratic forces and digital disinformation. More than 30 press freedom groups convened in New York to hear experts on cyber security and digital disinformation dissect what had happened in 2016, much of which has now been verified by the Mueller report, and more terrifyingly, what might occur as the opponents of democracy become more technologically sophisticated.

For example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, described how hackers might in the future break into electoral systems to alter the voting rolls in such a subtle manner that voters may not realize why they are being turned away at the polls. She pointed to a line in the Mueller report briefly mentioning that the electoral systems in Florida were breached in the 2016 election.

Of course, this scenario involves a higher degree of technological sophistication than Internet trolling and goes well beyond the type of online misinformation that the press can correct in real time. Government agencies and cyber security consultants will need to ensure that electoral systems are protected against such cyber threats and this seems to have been the case in the 2018 congressional elections. But henceforward journalists covering elections will need to be more vigilant, and particularly more tech savvy, than ever before in order to observe potential voting system threats and by doing so preserve the democratic process.

Deliberate disinformation, on the other hand, whether spread by state or non-state actors with the intent of skewing an election, may have an even more insidious purpose. Another one of our summit speakers, Laura Rosenberger, now the director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, was the foreign policy adviser for Hilary Clinton’s campaign. She pointed out that when the trolls began to operate, there was no emergent Republican candidate. The real goal, she asserted, was undermining public faith in democratic institutions.

At this time, we’re being asked to put our faith in algorithms to solve this crisis. These same algorithms failed to block one in five of the videos of the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March. The numbers are staggering. Users tried to upload one and a half million videos after the shooter livestreamed his attack. Although most were blocked before they could be uploaded, some 300,000 of these videos got through this cyber security net.

Another serious concern is the increasing sophistication of so-called “deep fakes,” digital audio, video and still images that are hyper-realistic forgeries that blur the lines between fact and fiction.

This battle against disinformation and deep fakes is likely to rage for some time, as each defensive measure is countered by new technological advances on the other side, making it akin to an arms race we’re already only too familiar with.

As someone who represents other journalists, I ask what measures can journalists effectively take to counter this potential tsunami of digital disinformation as elections come into the forefront of the news?

Firstly, more than a dozen of the press groups that gathered for last weekend’s summit drafted a resolution to reaffirm our role as watchdogs. This may sound an obvious statement on World Press Freedom Day, but we must recommit ourselves to presenting the public with the factual information that it needs to make sound decisions on vital questions, to include electoral decisions.

However, in order for citizens to be well informed, journalists must be free to do their jobs without fear of reprisal, intimidation or threat of physical harm. This is a tall order. We were honored to have Maria Ressa at our summit, where she eloquently advocated for the rights of a free unhindered press before leaving for the Philippines, Duterte and her destiny. She reminded the room full of journalists who are relatively safe within the borders of the United States that staying free sometimes takes genuine courage.

Secondly, our summit resolution encourages journalists to invite the public to become our allies in this fight. We urge the public to help journalists correct mistakes and counter misinformation they find online, whether that information appears to be malicious or simply mistaken.

Finally, we should all hold governments and private platforms to account, pushing them to develop technological and regulatory solutions, but at the same time making sure their actions are more transparent and they remain engaged with the public so that our right to freedom of speech and association are not infringed upon without the people’s consent.

Together, we must tackle this threat to our democracies pro-actively and with the optimism that we can preserve our dearly won freedoms. Journalists here in the United States can be encouraged that our Congressmembers recently submitted a resolution expressing their sense of the, quote: “importance of local print and digital journalism to the continued welfare, transparency, and prosperity of government at every level and the continuation and freedom of the United States as it is known today.”

This is a global problem, and U.S. Congressmembers introduced several bipartisan bills this term recognizing that. For example, The Global Electoral Exchange Act would promote the exchange of electoral best practices internationally, particularly in the areas of cyber security and data transmission.

In conclusion, democracies have collectively tackled worse foes. Arguably, the democratic world faced a far greater threat from fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s. Out of that global conflict emerged the intergovernmental institutions such as the UN, and high moral standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This challenge may require a similar collaborative effort to stand against the forces of disinformation.

Thank you.

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