Ten Years Hence 2021 – Making America Competitive Again in the Information Space

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Jamie Fly, President, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty
  • James S. O’Rourke, Teaching Professor of Management, University of Notre Dame

During the dark days of the height of the Cold War, when the free flow of information was a rare and precious commodity for those behind the Iron Curtain, the selling point of U.S.-sponsored media outlets such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was that it told the truth to millions who desperately wanted to hear it. Now, 30-plus years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that remains RFE/RL’s key selling point at a time when truth is once again under assault in much of the media space, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. As Jamie Fly, the CEO & President of RFE/RL, made clear in his lecture in ND’s Ten Years Hence series, the Cold War may be over, but in many respects the challenge facing democracies in the current information war is more daunting than it was in past decades.

During the Cold War, if a foreign actor wanted to sow division and spread disinformation in the United States or another country in the free world, they would have a difficult time doing so. It would require placing assets in fake roles abroad who constantly risked exposure as they slowly built up a network of contacts, made connections, and generally went about the laborious task of putting themselves in a position to influence the discourse enough to make a real impact on policy or society. Now with the advent of the Internet and social media, sowing disinformation has become a much easier task for authoritarian governments; as the U.S. witnessed during the course of the 2016 election, it was disturbingly easy for foreign actors to hack and release information designed to damage political figures, as well as to amplify fringe organic voices on various social platforms to spread conspiracy theories and create a general atmosphere of mistrust. What’s more, these dynamics are taking place at a time when independent media is under pressure throughout the world. In many cases, the pressure is economic, with viable business models unable to be found in the digital age. In other cases and in other places, the pressure is political, with authoritarian governments using events such as the COVID-19 pandemic in order to crack down on journalists that threaten their agenda. At such a time, RFE/RL, which prides itself on editorial independence despite its state funding, has been trying to meet the demands of the current precarious situation in global media. Fly stressed that governments should support the nurturing of independent media abroad through foreign aid. What’s more, democracies need to take more deterrent actions against hostile foreign actors so that the latter will no longer consider disinformation campaigns so convenient a tool to sow discord. Finally, the private sector, particularly social media companies, need to step up to ensure their profits are not coming at the expense of the civic health of their users. As Fly put it, “democracy is fundamentally based on the free flow of information,” making the integrity and reliability of said information all the more important.

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  • “Democracy is fundamentally based on the free flow of information.” (Jamie Fly 05:07)
  • Authoritarian regimes can exploit the open society and free flow of information in democracies to push falsehoods and shape narratives in those states. (07:41).
  • “There’s really been no sustainable business model for local media in many markets, and so you’ve had entire local newspapers wiped out.” (Jamie Fly 13:47)
  • Two popular tactics authoritarians use to sow dissent in democracies are (1) the hacking and releasing of information, and (2) the amplification on various social platforms of fringe content. Russia employed both these tactics in the leadup to the 2016 election. (27:20)
  • “U.S. [state-sponsored] broadcasters have always prided themselves on their editorial independence from the United States government, despite the fact that their funding comes from the U.S. Congress.” (Jamie Fly 29:10)
  • The kind of political disinformation operations we saw in 2016 we now see in regards to the pandemic. These operations have caused many people to question whether COVID even exists or whether vaccines are safe (36:12).
  • “In many of the democracies in Eurasia, even including parts of the European Union, democratic norms and institutions are being challenged by the forces of populism.”  (Jamie Fly 45:48)
  • “Authoritarians are certainly using the pandemic to put pressure on civil society and on independent journalists.”   (Jamie Fly 46:24)
  • It’s vital to develop new funding models to sustain independent media in democracies and throughout the world. (58:30)
  • Up to this point, authoritarian governments have seen disinformation campaigns as a low cost yet effective way to interfere in democracies. Democracies need to take more deterrent actions to combat these campaigns. (1:02:01).