June 20, 2019
Vice Premier Chen, President Kuo, Director Kapoor, Professor Kajimoto, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, zao an!
It is my great honor to be here today to talk about this important subject. My special thanks go out to Chengchi University for hosting this conference, and to Facebook for all of their efforts in putting this event together.
We should proceed with this dialogue with the shared recognition that there are those who would seek to use the openness of democratic societies to sow division, create polarization, and even spread outright lies. Governments must do what they can to fight disinformation, but ultimately enhancing media and news literacy among our publics is the best defense against disinformation and deliberate efforts to undermine democratic society.
The challenges associated with disinformation, misinformation, and foreign interference in democratic societies are so difficult to address precisely because they call into question the inherent tensions that exist between core democratic values, such as freedom of speech and due process, and the necessity to defend the integrity of our democratic institutions and elections. How we balance these competing values is still a work in progress. As Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and credible reports of interference in the 2018 local elections in Taiwan demonstrate so vividly, we are in a new era. Gathering experts together to discuss how to confront these challenges is an important first step to developing solutions that work. This is why we find this conference not only timely, but essential.
The United States takes threats to our democratic institutions very seriously. Arguably the biggest threats today are not enemy troops landing on our beaches, but efforts by malign actors to use our democracy against us. These actors believe that if through their efforts they can make our societies more polarized, less able to distinguish fact from lie, and more ungovernable, then people will begin to lose faith in democratic institutions. During the Cold War, our foes sought to advance a competing ideology. Today, those seeking to undermine our democracies know they don’t have a better alternative. So instead, they try to discredit our system of government to both weaken us from within and to rationalize to their own populations their continued authoritarian rule.
It is for this reason that last year, the United States expanded the mandate of the Global Engagement Center – a whole of government platform charged with countering propaganda and disinformation from foreign countries. Its mission is to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the U.S. federal government to recognize, understand, expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” The Global Engagement Center, or GEC, combines diplomatic, military, and law enforcement capacities with private sector, foreign government, and civil society organizations around the world. The United States is sometimes caught off guard, but it is just a question of time before we are able to rally the resources necessary to defend our democratic way of life. Threats may change, but this spirit never dies.
Taiwan is one of our most important partners in learning how to respond to these threats. Taiwan has been facing campaigns designed to undermine its democracy for decades. What binds Taiwan and the United States together is not just our close trade and investment relationship. The real glue that holds our relationship together is our shared democratic values. Our shared values are more than just principles we both hold. They represent a common culture that binds free societies together in a way that transcends ethnicity or even history. Taiwan’s shining example gives lie to the notion that Asian civilization is somehow incompatible with democracy and open markets. Those who say otherwise are, regrettably, more concerned with keeping themselves in power than working for the benefit and dignity of their own people.
Taiwan is also one of our most valuable partners on finding technological solutions so these challenges. Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang has been at the forefront of defending the integrity of the internet for decades. Our experts are extremely grateful for the support she is able to provide.
She has helped us understand that the threats our democracies face can come in many forms. For example, medical disinformation is arguably even more insidious than traditional political manipulation. Spreading disinformation about vaccines and other medical treatments, not only further polarizes our societies, but also leads people down sometimes deadly paths. More should be done to make people aware of this dimension of our work.
Governments and the private sector each have important roles to play. Effectively countering falsehoods is essential to protecting democracy and upholding our security. Towards this end, the United States and Taiwan are partners in supporting efforts to bolster civil society and promote media literacy in the region and across the globe. In October 2018 and again in September this year, under the auspices of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, the United States and Taiwan have collaborated on joint trainings for policy makers and civil society throughout the Indo-Pacific region on how to enhance media literacy and counter disinformation.
At the same time, governments can only do so much to address this challenge on their own. The private sector has both the means and the moral responsibility to act. Social media platforms are powerful tools for bringing society together, but these companies must also acknowledge that these tools can be abused and manipulated. If platforms wish to retain the trust of their users, and the support of the governments that give them the regulatory space to operate, the private sector must also lead in finding solutions to these challenges. If they choose not to do so, the call for tighter regulation and oversight will become inevitable.
Ultimately, governments, academia, the private sector, and civil society, and users themselves need to come together and, through the power of multi-stakeholder democratic dialogue, find solutions which balance all of these competing interests. None of this will be easy, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. Today’s conference is an important step towards a future where the promise of a free internet will reinforce the flourishing of free societies.
This Official Text is also available on the AIT website at: https://www.ait.org.tw/category/speeches/