In 2016, the world 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.
This year, and for the first time, the Society of Professional Journalists held a summit celebrating World Press Freedom Day. (Watch the videos at www.spj.org/wpfd-summit.asp.)
The theme of this year’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization event was Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation. Our summit, which was made possible by a generous gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, hosted more than 30 press freedom groups in New York from April 26 to 27.
We heard digital disinformation experts 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.
Deliberate disinformation, on the other hand, may have an even more insidious purpose. Another one of our 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 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, the press freedom groups that gathered for our summit drafted a resolution to reaffirm our role as watchdogs. As journalists, we must recommit ourselves to presenting the public with the factual information it needs to make sound decisions on vital questions, including electoral decisions.
Secondly, our resolution encourages journalists to invite the public to become our allies in this fight for freedom of information. We urge the public to help journalists correct mistakes and counter misinformation they find online, whether it appears to be malicious or merely 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 transparent and they remain engaged with the public so that our rights to freedom of speech and association are not infringed upon without the people’s consent.
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.
This column has been adapted from remarks the national president gave at the United Nations headquarters in New York on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2019.