Remarks at the Opening of GCTF Workshop on "Defending Democracy through Media Literacy"
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
(As Prepared for Delivery)
Speaker Su, Minister Wu, Digital Minister Tang, Director Christensen, President Liao, and distinguished guests, good morning.
I am pleased to join you for this timely and important workshop. And I am grateful to the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy for hosting me today, and to those from the United States and Taiwan who planned and organized this event. I also want to thank the workshop participants who traveled to Taipei from across the Indo-Pacific region to share your experiences and expertise.
It is a special pleasure to hold this workshop in Taiwan. The United States maintains a deep appreciation for Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, its respect for fundamental freedoms, and its strong commitment to the rule of law. While no democracy is perfect, Taiwan’s enduring support for the free exchange of ideas, its efforts to create an enabling environment for civil society, and its transparent and accountable approach to governance ensures that its people can build a society that is more secure, resilient, and prosperous. At a time of democratic backsliding and human rights abuses elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan serves as an invaluable model to others. And given the challenges we all face, it is especially important that democracies like Taiwan and the United States stand together in promoting a brighter future, free of repression, censorship, and exploitation.
And now to the topic of this workshop. Disinformation, which is the intentional spreading of false or misleading information, is not a new phenomenon. State and non-state actors have long used it as part of hostile influence operations to manipulate public discourse, inflame societal divisions, skew public policy, and subvert democratic processes and institutions.
What is new is that hostile actors increasingly exploit advances in technology, such as the Internet and social media, to create ever more sophisticated disinformation and to spread it farther and faster at less cost, while at the same time more effectively hiding the true sources and intent of their activities. The problem here is not the technologies, but those who misuse them for hostile purposes.
While the methods of these hostile actors continually evolve, their motivations generally remain the same: to sow discord on a mass scale in order to try to weaken democracies, and ultimately to undermine the appeal of democracy itself. We cannot let them succeed.
Democracy is the form of government with the greatest capacity to safeguard the human rights, fundamental freedoms, and dignity of every person, as well as to advance peace, prosperity, and security globally.
Democracies are best able to serve those functions where there is an environment of free and open exchange of information and ideas; where there is tolerance for a diversity of viewpoints; where debate over divergent viewpoints is nonviolent and information and ideas stand or fall on their own merits; and, where engaged and informed citizens are able to participate meaningfully in political decision-making and to hold their governments accountable.
Disinformation can take many forms, but the consistent aim of those who use it is to control and manipulate the information environment and people’s ideas and behavior by undermining pluralism; by muddying debate, poisoning dialogue, and increasing polarization; and, by distracting the public from the fundamental principles of good governance, free markets, an independent media, human rights, and democratic values.
Disinformation has the potential to drown out vital discussions; to marginalize credible voices and speakers from minority groups; to misshape beliefs and policy preferences; to instigate violence; to erode trust in media and public institutions; and, to affect whether and how citizens exercise their right to vote.
So in our view, effectively countering disinformation is essential to protecting our democracy and upholding our national security.
We also recognize that disinformation is a threat to all democracies. Which is why at the G7 Ministerial in April we joined with others in committing to address this shared challenge. For the first time, the G7 outlined a list of unacceptable actions by foreign actors to undermine democracies, including acts committed with the malicious intent of undermining trust in the independent media, and manipulating or limiting public discourse.
Looking to the Indo-Pacific region, we have seen disinformation used to instigate devastating human rights violations and abuses and erode democratic governance.
In Burma, for example, malign actors, including reportedly, elements within the military, have spread toxic disinformation through social media to propagate racism and dehumanization, primarily against the Rohingya. This disinformation has catalyzed severe discrimination and waves of violence against the Rohingya, which culminated in the ethnic cleansing that took place in northern Rakhine State in 2017 and forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. This is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, but also a serious blow to Burma’s fragile democratic transition. Unfortunately, rather than acknowledge the problem, Burmese authorities have arrested journalists who sought to report truthfully on abuses committed by security forces or even on local government malfeasance.
Taiwan also knows all too well how a determined external actor with hostile intentions can place enormous strain on democratic institutions through various influence tactics, including disinformation. As our Vice President noted recently: “The Chinese Communist Party shapes the information environment by rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.”
Successfully meeting the challenge of disinformation will require not only the efforts of governments but of all of us who have a stake in this issue, including companies, non-governmental organizations, the media, and, perhaps most significantly, an active and informed citizenry.
The success of disinformation efforts relies in large part on the ability of hostile actors to obscure the true origins and motivations of their activities. So, one of the most effective ways to counter disinformation is to shine a light on their activities. Governments have a particularly important role to play here in collecting and disseminating information about such actors and speaking out against their efforts.
Private companies also have a role to play in identifying false information and fake accounts. We have welcomed the voluntary efforts by Google, Facebook, and others to do so. This is not an easy or inexpensive thing to do, but we think it has been helpful to maintaining the integrity of individual platforms.
Governments and private companies should also engage non-governmental organizations as partners in addressing this challenge. Civil society and the academic community are well placed to help identify and expose new disinformation campaigns and to offer technical expertise on the ever-evolving methods used by hostile actors.
It is equally critical for stakeholders to continue to find ways to share information, best practices, and lessons learned. Which is why we committed to look at ways to do this with our G7 partners. It is also why multi-stakeholder dialogues like the one taking place here today are so important.
Disinformation techniques seek to exploit the freedom and openness of democratic societies. In an evolving and increasingly fragmented news and information environment, disinformation causes individuals to question the accuracy of all news and information – even fact-based, reliable reporting from traditional news media. So, it is critical to support efforts to build resilience to disinformation, in both the people and the institutions that support democracy.
We believe a well-informed citizenry is key to the strength of democratic institutions. Healthy and robust public debates based on facts, evidence, and reason are integral to effective civic engagement. To that end, the United States will continue to support efforts to strengthen civil society and promote media literacy in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe.
Based on our own history, we believe that press freedom is an essential pillar of freedom and democracy, and independent news reporting is vitally important to free and open democratic societies.
Here in Taiwan, the credibility of recurring free and fair elections has been underpinned by a vibrant media environment that provides people in Taiwan with factual, independent information about candidates from all parties. This should not be taken for granted.
Elsewhere in the region, governments have misused tax and other legal provisions to weaken independent news sources and manipulate the environment for key elections. This was vividly seen most recently in Cambodia, where flawed July parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair.
To help address such problems, the United States actively engages with allies and partners to strengthen independent media outlets and public service broadcasters, and we encourage people everywhere to think critically about their sources of news and information.
One important means of doing so is by strengthening reliable, local media. Citizens may find local media more relevant to their daily lives, and at the same time, may be better able to evaluate the bona fides of local reporting.
But it is not easy to support local media given the growing internationalization of information dissemination. We must find new ways of doing so – including through exploring new models that encourage advertisers to utilize local media.
In closing, it is our strong belief that the most effective solutions to the challenges posed by disinformation are those consistent with the rule of law and democratic principles. We must take care that our approaches to countering disinformation do not inadvertently undermine the bedrock principles that undergird democracies – particularly freedom of expression, both online and offline.
We have seen how governments that claim for themselves broad powers to ban certain forms of expression all too often misuse that power to repress peaceful dissent and silence the voices of independent media, civil society activists, human rights defenders, political rivals, and members of religious, ethnic, and other minority groups. In Vietnam, for example, we have recently seen a harsh crackdown on independent bloggers and journalists criticizing the government.
We adamantly discourage any approach to countering disinformation that would undermine freedom of expression. Democracies must meet challenges by embracing their strengths and values rather than surrendering to a darker path of repression.
Again, everyone, welcome. I look forward to candid conversations about how we can respond to this shared challenge. Thank you.