Wed. Jul 24th, 2024
Building A More Resilient Information Environment

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very, very much, and good afternoon, everyone.  I want to start again by thanking our South Korean friends, all of our co-hosts, everyone here at this summit for coming together today and in the days to follow.  

Our democracies have different histories, different strengths, different challenges.  But we’re all determined to deliver a safer, healthier, more prosperous, more inclusive future for our people and for people around the world.

Now, we know there’s no shortage of obstacles to meeting that objective.  Lingering barriers to political participation.  Corruption.  Economic growth that isn’t broadly shared.

What I’d like to do this afternoon is spend a few minutes focusing on one longstanding problem that’s become increasingly complicated and increasingly consequential, and that’s the challenge of disinformation – of material deliberately meant to deceive and divide – as well as other forms of false and misleading content.

We all know that a world in which reliable information is readily accessible is pretty much foundational to every issue, in every country.  It empowers us to understand and engage with the world around us.  To make decisions that shape our lives, that shape our communities, that shape our countries.

But we also know the information space has become more crowded, more complex, more confusing, more contested than ever. 

That, in turn, creates an enabling environment for disinformation – an environment in which state and non-state actors are undermining the objective truths on which open societies depend.

And I think we all know this.  We’ve all experienced this in our daily lives.  As someone who’s a little bit older than probably most of the people in this audience, this has maybe been the most profound change that I’ve experienced during my own career and working life. 

If you go back the 30 or so years that I’ve been in government, the most profound change has been in the information space.  When I started out a little over 30 years ago, pretty much everyone did the same thing:  They opened the door of their apartment or their home in the morning and picked up a hard copy of a newspaper, and there were only a few newspapers that everyone tended to rely on.  And then, if you had a television in your office, which some people did but not everyone did, in the United States, you’d turn it on at 6:30 at night or 7:00 at night and you’d get one of our three broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC – for the evening news.  And those were the foundational sources of information that pretty much everyone relied on.

Now, to state the obvious, we live in a world where we seem to be intravenously connected to information, and we’re getting new inputs every millisecond.  The use of technology, particularly when it comes to digital technologies – social media, and now artificial intelligence – they’re dramatically accelerating what had already been an incredibly fast pace of change.  But that accelerant has also created an accelerant for disinformation, fueling polarization, adding to the general sense of confusion that people have about the world around them.

During COVID, disinformation discouraged millions from getting vaccinated – with sometimes fatal results.

Hashtags like “Climate Scam” have inundated online platforms, helping to delay action on the climate crisis.

Nearly half the people of the world are going to be going to the polls this year – this is an extraordinary election year in country after country – but citizens and candidates will face a flood of falsehoods that suffocate serious civic debate.

Our competitors, our adversaries are using disinformation to exploit fissures within our democracies by further sowing suspicion, cynicism, instability.  Pitting one group against another.  Discrediting our institutions.

People within our own societies have exacerbated these dynamics – sometimes deliberately, sometimes influenced by bots and algorithms that are trained on biased information.

This distortion of the marketplace of ideas is not an unfortunate byproduct of free speech – it’s a direct threat to freedom of expression itself.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines not only the right to express ourselves; it protects our freedom, and I quote, “to hold opinions without interference.”  The manipulation of information undermines our ability to exercise that fundamental right.

Building a more resilient information environment is, for us, a vital national security interest.  It’s also an urgent priority for our diplomacy.  And I want to discuss some of the ways we’re trying to advance that objective.

To begin with, we continue to expose, to disrupt, and to deter disinformation.

The State Department’s Global Engagement Center coordinates our governmentwide and multilateral efforts to identify, to analyze, to reveal foreign manipulation of information.

Last September, we released a report detailing how the Chinese Government has invested billions of dollars to spread propaganda and twist the global information environment.  For example, buying cable TV platforms in Africa and excluding international news channels from subscription packages.  Or using local subsidiaries to surreptitiously purchase media companies in Southeast Asia – which then run heavily pro-PRC news.

We unmasked the Kremlin’s covert campaign to undermine support for Ukraine across the Western Hemisphere, laundering Russian content through Latin American media to make it look like it was organic.

By discovering and publicizing these influence operations, we’ve enabled other governments, media, civil society to track and to thwart them.  For example, after the United States disclosed Moscow’s hidden involvement in a Brazilian nationalist organization, a Brazilian political party expelled 50 members tied to the Russia-linked group.

Now, countering misleading information is essential.  But it’s not sufficient.  Just as we tackle falsehoods and distortions in the immediate term, we have to invest in making ourselves more resilient to them in the long term.

Think about it this way.  During COVID, we tirelessly delivered shots in arms, while working to prevent and prepare for future epidemics.  We combat hackers while establishing at the same time layers of cybersecurity to respond to malicious activity – to do so faster and to ensure that attacks don’t bring down entire networks.

So similarly, even as we’re determined to expose and counter disinformation, the United States is equally focused on promoting an open, resilient information environment globally – where deceptive messages gain less traction, where truth is elevated.

We need governments to uphold media freedom and the safety of journalists on- and offline – because an independent and empowered press is a cornerstone for healthy democracies.

We need to enhance open government and expand access to information – how a legislator voted, who received a government contract, how economic data like GDP numbers are compiled – so that journalists and citizens alike can hold their leaders accountable.

We need to ensure that media regulators are independent and serve the public interest, rather than pressuring outlets to advance propaganda.

We need governments to allocate their advertising dollars equitably, transparently – not use those resources to promote or punish a given outlet.

We need greater transparency into who owns media companies, who owns the distribution networks – so that political or foreign entities can’t purchase a news organization and restrict or advance certain views without the public knowing who’s behind it.

We need to invest in civic and media literacy, and empower citizens to distinguish fact from fiction – especially as new technologies emerge like generative AI that can fool even the most sophisticated news consumers.

By taking steps like these, those peddling disinformation will find it harder to operate in the shadows.  Our citizens will have greater access to quality information.  They’ll be better equipped to assess the validity of the content that they encounter.

Let me give you a few illustrations of how we’re working to advance this comprehensive, affirmative approach.

One example:  Journalists bring vital information to light – whether that’s reporting from a war zone or investigating corruption.  The press has even uncovered itself disinformation campaigns.

So as part of promoting a resilient information environment, we’re supporting reporters as they face repression and economic pressures.

We’re helping newsrooms implement stronger safety protocols when reporters are threatened.  We’re funding legal defense funds for journalists hit with expensive and baseless lawsuits that are meant to shut them up or shut them down.

The United States is cracking down on the misuse of commercial spyware to surveil and harass journalists or human rights defenders and others – including leveraging sanctions, export controls, visa restrictions to hold governments and firms accountable.

At last year’s Summit for Democracy, we brought together 10 other countries committed to ensuring that this technology – commercial spyware – is deployed consistent with universal human rights and basic freedoms.  At this year’s summit, we’re announcing that half a dozen more nations are joining this coalition – South Korea, Japan, Germany, Finland, Poland, and Ireland.

At the same time, we’re working to strengthen the long-term financial sustainability of media outlets – especially local news – local news that makes communities more knowledgeable and less susceptible to falsehoods.

In Moldova, for example, USAID partnered with outlets to improve marketing and subscriptions – increasing revenues by 138 percent and online reach by 160 percent.

The United States is also committed to public interest media – those outlets that are fact-based, editorially independent, and dedicated to informing citizens about issues that are critical to their well-being, whether that’s corporate pollution or government corruption.

Through the U.S. Agency for Global Media – that’s the organization that began during World War II as the Voice of America – we’re one of eight major international public broadcasters that educate and engage hundreds of millions of people weekly in over 75 languages.

We’ve supported public radio in Ukraine, enabling 17 million Ukrainians to receive trustworthy news during Russia’s war of aggression.

At the very first Summit for Democracy, the United States dedicated $20 million to bolster public interest media in developing countries; we’re glad other donors have now contributed $30 million more to revitalize what is an essential public service.

A second way we’re promoting a healthy information environment is by investing in greater digital and media literacy.

Journalism helps get quality information out into the world.  But we also have to do our best to make sure that readers, viewers, consumers, listeners – the ones receiving the content – can sort the wheat from the chaff.

When you look at who’s actually made themselves more resilient, more resistant to distortions and lies globally, this ability to discern what’s credible and what’s not is one of the biggest common denominators.

In Finland, students learn about disinformation in primary school.  Taiwan teaches seniors in rural areas how to spot misleading messages.

Similarly, the United States’ three-day TechCamps have helped young leaders from Togo to Chile develop the skills to judge whether content is reliable.

Through our Digital Communication Network, 10,000 journalists and creative professionals from East Asia to Latin America are producing and sharing tools to promote accurate information.

We offer English classes around the world, in part so that people can access independent news outlets, not just state-sponsored news in their native language.

Today, the State Department is releasing what we’re calling a “Democratic Roadmap,” recommendations to help people become more aware of and resistant to information manipulation – like encouraging social media platforms to label AI-generated content, so that users know when an image is real or when it’s not.

Of course, we know that disinformation transcends borders.  It crosses platforms.  No single country, no single entity can meet this challenge alone.  Which is why a third way that we’re creating a healthier information environment is through our diplomacy, advancing a shared understanding of the problem as well as creative solutions to address it.

We’re working to promote common principles.  We’re aligning partners and allies around a framework to counter information manipulation by foreign adversaries.

Countries that adopt this blueprint commit to a range of actions, from developing national strategies and policies for fighting disinformation to enhancing their technical capabilities to detect and combat deceptive content.

To put that cooperation into practice, we’ve signed agreements with countries from Bulgaria to South Korea, training partners to analyze disinformation, building capacity and resilience to this challenge.

As I mentioned earlier today, this week, the United Nations will adopt a landmark U.S.-led resolution on advancing safe, secure, and trustworthy artificial intelligence for sustainable development – including measures to counter AI-enabled disinformation.  Tomorrow, this summit’s Information Integrity Cohort will consider how to strengthen our responses to misleading content in the context of generative AI.

We’re also sharing best practices.  One of the things I’ve learned in 30 years of doing this is that, for pretty much any problem that we face, somewhere, someone has probably figured out an answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer.  But if we’re not sharing that information, then all of us have to continue to reinvent the wheel.  Sharing best practices is an incredibly powerful way to actually make progress.

Alongside France, we’re co-chairing the OECD’s new Misinformation and Disinformation Hub, helping governments shift from ad hoc tactics to more holistic policies that enable reliable information to thrive.

We’re mobilizing collective action through groups like the Media Freedom Coalition, rallying more than 50 countries on six continents to speak out and engage governments when journalists are under assault.

One set of stakeholders in particular has an outsized role to play in building a healthier information ecosystem.  Simply put, the United States believes that the private sector can and must do more to address disinformation.

Last year, we joined over 30 countries to endorse the Global Declaration on Information Integrity Online.  In that declaration, we invited the tech industry to take steps like improving the transparency of their algorithms, establishing political advertising policies, developing indicators for gauging the trustworthiness of information sources.

Now, online platforms can’t solve the disinformation challenge alone; but the rest of us cannot solve it without them.

Finally, the United States is working to tell our own story in authentic, proactive, and strategic ways – recognizing that correcting skewed narratives about our country, about our democracy, about our partners requires our government to build trust and credibility around the world.

We engage influential voices and modern-day platforms where people get their news – like podcasts.  We hold regular press conferences where we subject ourselves to the toughest questions.  We also hold people-to-people exchanges that enable people around the world to learn who we are and what we value.

And when the State Department provides free wire services to media from the Indo-Pacific or Sub-Saharan Africa, these aren’t U.S. Government news services – they are independent, reputable outlets like the Associated Press, like Reuters that write tough articles, including about our own government.

Our willingness to acknowledge and to address our own shortcomings – not sweep them under the rug, not pretend they don’t exist – that’s what makes democracies different, and that’s ultimately what makes democracies stronger.

Another hallmark of our democracies is that our citizens shape our trajectories.  And the choice ahead for us is clear.

We can become so overwhelmed by lies and distortions – so divided from one another – that we will fail to meet the challenges that our nations face.

Or we can meet this moment and do what democracies do best.  We can welcome diverse voices and perspectives.  We can think critically and debate vigorously.  We can actually grow and self-correct.

We can remember that accurate information, fundamentally, is a public good.  It’s available to all of us.  It benefits all of us.  And it will take all of us – everyone at this summit, each of our citizens – to build a more open and more resilient environment for information, and continue to deliver a better future for our people and people around the world.

Thank you so much for your attention this afternoon, but especially thank you for the work you’ll be doing in the days and weeks ahead.  Thanks very much.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS