Ambassador Kosnett’s Remarks at the DISICON, June 9, 2021
Good afternoon. Thank you for that kind introduction. It is an honor and a privilege to be here today. When I last spoke at DISICON, it was December 2019. At that time, little did we know that we were on the brink of a worldwide pandemic. How could we have known, though scientists had been warning about it for years? Novels and movies had even been made about it, the possibility of a virus sweeping the world and citizens coming together despite differences to defeat it—albeit our latest pandemic was without vampires. Sounds almost possible, could be true. That is how a lot of disinformation starts—false statements wrapped around a nugget of truth.
It can often be a challenge, separating fact from fiction, separating the possible from the impossible. What information is trustworthy, and what is disinformation with the intent to deceive? Both types of information are found in the media landscape, on radio and on television, in the news shared in conversations with our friends and family, and especially on social media.
In the digital age, the sheer amount of information that is available and shared is tremendous. We can find information online to support our opinion or convince ourselves about almost anything—including vampires, zombies, and vaccines used to embed micro-chips. Conspiracies abound, rumors flow.
In the midst of this information glut are hardworking scientists, researchers, and journalists striving to provide citizens in their communities and around the world with accurate information—information to guide citizens, businesses, and governments; information so families can plan for the future; and information so we can all enrich our minds and learn and grow.
Those of you who attended the last conference heard me share my personal experiences about how news was exchanged in the 1960s and 1970s and anecdotes from history—yes, I am an old dinosaur, and my stories are historical stories. I shared that we received our news from nightly broadcasts, from only a few television stations. I couldn’t go online at that time, and immediately fact check what I was hearing—nor, unintentionally find myself in a rabbit hole of click after click. If I wanted more information, I could search it out in books at the library or ask someone whom I trusted as a reliable source.
The last time we spoke, I also shared with you stories of authoritarian governments and how they use disinformation to control their citizens. But let me be clear, disinformation is not only a tactic of authoritarian regimes; disinformation is also found within democracies. The creation of disinformation in a democratic society is a lethal weapon, as we all saw on January 6.
Democratic elections are increasingly a target for disinformation campaigns from both within and without—whether it’s to keep someone in power or prevent another; or pave the way for a candidate that can do one’s political bidding, or cast favors their way. Free and fair elections as a symbol of democracy may even itself be the target of disinformation campaigns.
While disinformation can come from any direction, governments have been one of the prime targets—not just here in Kosovo, but across the world. In America, we saw how the use of disinformation led to an attack on our Capitol. In Kosovo, NDI found that disinformation focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbated political tensions among parties, and promoted misogyny.
In its media monitoring reports, NDI has continually reported that disinformation abounds in Kosovo elections. All political parties cast some sort of disinformation at their opponents in the last elections. Female candidates were particularly attacked, often with harsh or sexist language. This was true in the last few elections; and it will continue unless political party representatives make a conscious decision to refrain from using such language. I urge all parties to do so, as it results in a divisive public discourse that benefits none. As we look toward Kosovo’s upcoming local elections, let us all strive to prevent disinformation from spreading and infecting Kosovo’s democracy.
Journalists have a particularly important role to play in combatting disinformation, and I am pleased to hear that so many young journalists and students of journalism are joining us virtually today. I commend you for wanting to educate yourselves on this “wicked” problem we are facing. As journalists, the first responsibility to speak the truth is with you—as the holder of the pen. In this social media age, that responsibility is even more serious as you can and do choose what to write, publish, and share.
I encourage you to uphold the highest standards of journalism in your work and continue to deliberately combat disinformation and misinformation. You can do this by informing yourself, holding yourself to high ethical standards, and building in time for fact checking and editorial practices. I know these are hard to do on a tight deadline, but citizens are depending on you as one of the critical sources of reliable information they receive.
More accurate media reporting from journalists and fact-checked stories are only one way that we can combat disinformation. We can also come at it from different directions and across sectors, including civil society, academia, technology, and public institutions by collaborating, and educating the public about the threat of disinformation, updating school curricula, and supporting programs that teach people critical thinking and media literacy.
I do hope that this conference and the media monitoring reports will help all of us better recognize the information challenges around us in the digital age. Let me remind you that all of us, even individual citizens reading, sharing, and liking on social media, have a role to play.
I encourage journalists, relevant institutions, and civil society to begin developing the necessary tools for combating the phenomena discussed today, including solutions for mitigating the use of information manipulation and harmful speech. We are committed to working with our partners to help build these tools and make these a reality for the citizens of Kosovo.