Remarks by Ambassador Garber at the Combatting Misinformation through Media Literacy Conference

Saturday, June 8, 2019
Cyprus University of Technology, Limassol

Spokesman Prodromou, Rector Anayiotos, guests.  Καλημέρα σας.  It is a pleasure to be here this morning in Limassol to speak at this conference on countering misinformation and disinformation.  This has been a collaborative effort, and I would especially like to thank Dr. Eleni Kyza of the Cyprus University of Technology and Dr. Anastasia Economou of the Pedagogical Institute and their team for all their excellent, indispensable work in organizing this program.  I would also like to thank the Press and Information Office for their support and the members of CO-INFORM for their participation and co-sponsorship of the event.  Finally, let me welcome our audiences in Greece, Turkey, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, and Moldova who are viewing us live through the technical wizardry of our partners here at the CUTing Edge.  I would like to say a special hello to the group in Latvia, where I was Ambassador from 2009-2012.  I have wonderful memories of my time there.  Sveiks!  Labrit!

This event is a collaborative effort among the Republic of Cyprus, the European Union, and the United States.  That is as it should be, since disinformation is a common threat to our societies and our way of life.  In democracies, the power to make decisions rests with the people, who vote their leaders in and out of power and who vote on crucial referenda that can decide national policies.  In order for voters to make the best choices, they must have access to the facts and must be able to debate different policies in an open, free space.  That’s why a free and independent media is so crucial institution to democracy.  As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “How can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

Disinformation – 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 and inflame societal divisions.  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. They 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 to subvert democratic processes and institutions.

Although it can take many forms, disinformation’s consistent aim is to poison dialogue, increase polarization, and distract the public.  It undermines good governance, free markets, an independent media, human rights, and democracy.  While the methods of these hostile actors continually evolve, their motivations generally remain the same:  to weaken democracies and ultimately to undermine the appeal of democracy itself.  We cannot let them succeed.

Fortunately, there is now some agreement on the best ways for societies to respond.  We must learn to identify disinformation quickly, to counter it aggressively, and to protect our institutions so we can preserve open dialogue among our citizens.  Journalists, educators, and policymakers all have important roles to play in this effort.

Journalists are the first responders to fake news.  They need to resist the urge to publish stories they have not been able to verify.  I know this is difficult in the current news business where there is great pressure to beat your competitors to the punch, but no one wants to be the first one to put out a false story.  Journalists need to be familiar with new tools to help them verify photos; need to know what online sites are untrustworthy because they have a history of pumping out fake news, and need to work together to establish reliable fact-checking procedures.  Practical training such as that provided today in the workshops for journalists can help reduce the spread of fake news.  If our free and independent societies are vulnerable to disinformation, they also possess a very effective means with which to defend themselves, the free, transparent, and independent press.

Educators can also be key contributors to our efforts to maintain our democracies.  By teaching critical thinking skills to their students, they can help to make them smarter consumers of news, ones who can spot dubious stories and prevent them from spreading through social media.  I am happy to see that more than 75 students participated in yesterday’s workshops and that there are number of teachers here today to learn how to make their students better digital citizens, the kind who will use technology to strengthen human rights and improve, not degrade, our institutions.  And I commend the Ministry of Education for its proactive initiatives in media literacy.

Finally, policymakers – the guardians protecting our democratic freedoms.  By steadfastly upholding democratic norms, they provide a framework for the smooth functioning of our societies.  Policymakers are the enablers of independent, professional journalism.  They can provide the resources, tools, and guidance to help not only journalists but teachers, students, and the general public better identify disinformation wherever it is hiding – in plain sight or in the shadows.

Disinformation is an international problem that requires international cooperation. This conference is an example of such cooperation.  I hope that in participating today, you learn more about how to identify disinformation, you find new ways to respond, and that you come up with new ideas for collaboration among educators, journalists, and policymakers—here in Cyprus, in Europe, and across the Atlantic.  The United States will announce a funding opportunity after the conference for innovative proposals to encourage such collaboration.

Thank you and enjoy.