U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center of the U.S. Department of State.
Delphi Economic Forum
June 10, 2020
Special Envoy Gabrielle: Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Professor Panagiotou I have to tell you, being here feels quite a lot like my time back in TV news and this is quite fun doing this.
I want to say thank you to the Delphi Economic Forum, its organizers and to Mr. Symeon Tsomokos for transforming Delphi into this virtual forum this year and also for inviting me to participate.
I’d also like to say thank you to Ambassador Pyatt as well as the U.S. Embassy in Athens and the U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki for their ongoing partnership and their support.
As Professor Panagiotou mentioned, I do serve as the U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator of the Global Engagement Center of the U.S. Department of State. And as he referenced, the GEC’s mission is to lead and coordinate efforts of the U.S. government to recognize, understand, expose and counter foreign propaganda and disinformation that’s aimed at undermining the stability of the United States or our allies or our partners.
So simply stated, the GEC leads the U.S. government’s response to propaganda and disinformation and in particular that which is emanating from Russia, the People’s Republic of China, Iran, and terrorist organization. And both propaganda and disinformation hurt not only the United States but also hurts our foreign partners including those, right here in Greece, those in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean and the wider European region. And the Digital Communication Networks Southeast European Hub, DCNC in Thessaloniki which we’ve worked with for almost two years now, I think is a really wonderful example of the kind of partnership that we need to give the leverage in order to empower local communities to build up resistance and resilience to disinformation.
I want to talk about that a little bit more in a bit. But before I share the work that GEC is doing with our foreign partners I just want to take a moment here to reflect on the reason that we’re all viewing each other right now through our computer screens instead of meeting each other in person and being in Delphi. And of course the reason is this COVID-19 virus.
I first just want to take a moment and say that I hope that you and your families and your friends are all healthy and safe during this time.
I think it’s clearly obvious to most of us that the current health pandemic that we’re all facing really does underscore the serious threats posed by disinformation that’s being spread by our adversaries.
Now since January of this past year the GEC has been tracking the false narratives that have been disseminated by Russia, China and Iran around the COVID-19 virus. Today I’m going to focus on both Russian and PRC disinformation around the virus.
We’ve already seen many false claims and in my position I understand best practices and countering disinformation. I don’t like to repeat false narratives but I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on a few of them here. So here are some of the false claims.
That the U.S. either caused or exacerbated the spread of the virus and the global pandemic. There are false claims that the virus is a U.S. bio-weapon. False claims that 5G technology somehow exacerbates COVID-19 symptoms. We’ve seen the fueling of anti-vaccination rhetoric. We’ve seen conspiracies, lies, about Bill Gates and George Soros. We’ve seen lies about public health risks that could impact election turnout. And we’ve seen efforts to cast out a democracy itself as a model of governance.
Fortunately this time of disinformation is often not effective and particularly among audiences in Western nations. So for example, according to recent Pew Research, more than 8 in 10 Americans distrust information from the Chinese about the Coronavirus outbreak including nearly half who have no trust in it at all.
Now with that said, disinformation can resonate in various parts of the glob and it’s important that we collectively remain vigilant about it. So let’s first talk about Russia.
Russia’s overarching goal with disinformation is that it wants to try to drive a wedge between the United States and our friends, our allies and our partners. Now we know that Russia in particular is trying to exploit the COVID-19 crisis and they’re trying to weaponize information to sow confusion and division between Euro-Atlantic institutions. And this strong Euro-Atlantic bond is the foundational element of the United States’ relationship with Greece.
Russia’s also been using the COVID-19 crisis to refresh existing false claims by trying to add a new layer of disinformation about the United States, about the EU and NATO. So just as an example, Russia tried to use the example of giving the Italians aid during the crisis as some sort of proof that the EU and the U.S. had abandoned the country despite the fact that both the U.S. and the EU have given Italy substantial aid to recover from the impact of COVID-19.
During the COVID-19 crisis we’ve also seen Russian state media and pro-Kremlin proxy sites spread conspiracy theories against Bill Gates and his work on public health and specifically vaccines. And unfortunately, we all know that Russia has a long history of spreading disinformation around health and science issues and we have to remain vigilant about this. The track record indicates that we will continue to see the Russia disinformation ecosystem sowing confusion and mistrust even as treatments and eventually as a vaccine emerge.
Now turning to China. We’ve unfortunately seen the PRC recently adopt many of these same disinformation tactics that we formerly associated just with Russia. So the COVID-19 crisis has underscored the lengths the Chinese Communist Party is willing to go to try to control local narratives.
We’ve seen the Chinese Communist party engage in an aggressive information campaign to try to reshape global perceptions around COVID-19. Now Beijing is claiming that China’s a global leader in the health response while trying to make people believe that democracies are failing to protect our people and to provide aid to the global community. We all know that this is simply not true.
The reality is the U.S. has committed more than $11 billion to benefit the international COVID-19 response. Everything from vaccine research to funding for preparedness efforts and humanitarian aid. And that’s compared to a promise of $2 billion from the Chinese.
Meanwhile to push their message we’re increasingly seeing aggressive tactics from China. In fact the CCP has activated a global network of state-controlled and state-directed media and they’ve manipulated social media using bot and trolls to try and amplify disinformation and to spread pro-PRC propaganda.
Let me just give you one example. Looking at the China Global Television Network, China’s state-run media outlet, they took a study that was published in a well-respected medical journal, a medical journal. They then interviewed the author on video and then they misused the report’s analysis to cast doubt on whether the virus originated in Wuhan. The PRC Embassy in Bangkok then misused the same research to try and suggest that the virus originated in the United States.
This kind of CCP disinformation and the failure to share truthful information is dangerous to global public health as the international community is trying to seek to understand this virus and to try to develop effective treatments and vaccines. It’s a reckless behavior and it endangers far more than the health of our transatlantic partnerships. It affects the very health of our own family members, our communities, our employees, our companies and our economies. And it also undermines the efforts of our front line healthcare workers, those heroes who are courageously out there trying to share accurate information about the virus and how we should protect ourselves.
The PRC has also attempted to use the crisis to try and highlight what they want you to believe is the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party as opposed to democratic systems that the CCP wants you to think have mishandled the crisis.
But as Secretary Pompeo recently pointed out, in China when doctors and journalists warn of the dangers of new disease, the CCP silences and disappears them and lies about death tolls and the extent of the outbreak. And we’ve also seen PRC officials posted in Europe spread disinformation in public campaigns to criticize their host government’s responses to the pandemic while praising the PRC’s response.
These actions are not conducive to building a collaborative international response and quite frankly, they’re not what friends do to friends.
But this crisis also highlights the responsibilities that we, free democratic societies like Greece, the birthplace of democracy and the United States have in the fight to disseminate factual information and to fight disinformation.
The U.S. government’s view is clear. Transparency, accountability, and information sharing. These are the best tools for stemming the tide of COVID-19’s impact. And it’s that last point about information sharing that makes our work with the DCN Hub in Greece so very vital.
As the U.S. government’s lead in this fight I truly believe that our collective efforts to address to address maligned influence including out transatlantic partnerships with organizations like the DCN Hub are more important now than they’ve ever been before. And although we’re still in the midst of this global pandemic it’s important to discuss what are those underlying factors that have allowed the disinformation and propaganda around COVID-19 to spread just as quickly as the virus itself?
So in our view there are three global trends that we’ve seen that are converging that have created an unfortunate golden age for maligned state actors to use disinformation and other hybrid threats.
The first trend is the rapid advancement of communications and information sharing technology. Things like computers, smart phones and social media platforms. This has had a massive global effect on the world’s ability to communicate in both positive but also in negative ways.
A second trend is toward what is termed as the emergency of great power competition with China being the world’s second biggest economy.
Now if you look back to after the fall of the Soviet Union, the trend line of international norms had been towards liberal, free market democratic societies, but now we’re seeing considerable competition from actors with a darker vision for humanity and with a lack of respect for the rule of law, most notably from resurgent authoritarianism.
Lastly, the third trend is that geopolitical competition has really evolved beyond the Cold War bipolar model into what’s now a multi-faceted struggle among existing and emerging powers to do things like secure resources, to become even players in the economic and financial markets, and to influence or control hearts and minds.
For Western governments our greatest strength can at times be our greatest challenges as we’re struggling to counter propaganda and disinformation. Societal openness, deliberative decision-making process, free and independent media, respect for the rule of law and accountability of our leaders through free elections. Those have all been turned against us by maligned state actors in the fast moving world of the modern communications landscape.
But under my watch we have not and we will not allow the false narratives pedaled by maligned actors to go unchallenged and to undermine the values and the ideals that we hold so near and dear. Disinformation is developed in order to hurt the very foundation of our alliance but we will not allow it to.
To effectively counter propaganda and misinformation we really do need your help. It’s a collective effort and we know that none of us individually are as strong as we are when we come together as a team. So it’s only by working with like-minded partners that value open societies, that value free press and that value the sharing of truthful information that we can succeed together in the fight against disinformation and propaganda.
To that end one of the GEC’s main goals is to try and better understand the work that’s being done by our various partners around the world and then help to coordinate and connect our partners’ activities into a collective effort to combat specific disinformation campaigns.
So for example in Europe, the GEC has initiatives underway right now, initiatives to build the technical skills of foreign civil society organizations, NGOs, local influencers and journalists to be able to identify and raise more public awareness [inaudible]. We have initiatives to develop partnerships with key local influencers, incredible messengers who are best positioned to produce and disseminate organic content that resonates with local target audiences.
We also have initiatives that explore technologies that can provide early warning systems to detect disinformation. And we have initiatives to analyze foreign audiences who are most susceptible to disinformation.
These efforts are paying off. We are seeing the results.
Throughout this COVID-19 so-called “infodemic” the GEC has been detecting and attributing emerging disinformation areas in near real time. So going back to April we warned the international public that we were seeing evidence of convergent narratives in our Russian and Chinese information actors. In 2019 the U.S. government identified Russian attempts to influence the Macedonian Naming Referendum to try to derail Skopje’s NATO membership. The GEC got together and partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Skopje and other local entities to be able to address the issue. The GEC deployed a digital [inaudible] of exports to support local actors with their counter-messaging efforts. These efforts paved the way for a critical referendum process clearing North Macedonia’s path to NATO membership.
Disinformation often takes advantage of information [inaudible] and that’s why the GEC believes so strongly in the value of filling information spaces with positive fact-based narratives that support our policies, our priorities, and our shared values.
Over the years we’ve also learned that it’s the people that are closest to the competition over narratives, are the ones that are most affected by propaganda and disinformation. They’re the ones who are most effective in countering them. That’s why the GEC focuses so much of our efforts on empowering and building capacity with our foreign government and our civil society partners both in Europe and around the world. We want our local partners to be able to fill the information space with organic, credible and accurate messages about our countries in the pursuit of freedom, prosperity and security.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the GEC’s and the U.S. government’s most critical local partners in our efforts to counter disinformation is right here in Greece. I think even though we’re here virtually. That of course is the Digital Communication Network Southeast European Hub, the DCNC in Thessaloniki.
Professor Panagiotou as a cofounder of DCNC, I want to commend your tireless efforts to counter disinformation where you see it. I have to say that I’ve been paying attention and I was particularly impressed with the engaging series of COVID-19 disinformation webinars over the past three months, and I have to say that you and the DCNC hub are really a shining example of that critical role our local partners have to play in empowering your own communities to be able to identify and to build organic resistance to the disinformation that’s trying to undermine independent journalism and is trying to destroy public trust in our democratic institutions.
I have to say that I’m just so proud of the partnership that we’ve built going back to the Thessaloniki International Fair back in 2018. That’s when we first began this conversation.
For those who don’t know the background, last summer you worked closely with the GEC, with the U.S. Embassy in Athens, with Skopje, the U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki, and the U.S. Agency for Global Media to develop and implement a disinformation training workshop that was intended for journalists, academics, and civil society leaders from Greece and North Macedonia, and you were doing this even as tensions and disinformation over the North Macedonia naming issue was stirring. Then you expanded the network by joining forces with our partners in the broader European Digital Communications Network which is a global network of over 7,000 digital influencers, journalists and civil society activists from 50 different countries all working to raise public awareness of disinformation and direct people towards accurate, credible sources of information.
After watching the official DCN Southeast Europe Hub (DCN) in Thessaloniki in December, the hub’s research, I believe, has provided invaluable insights on Greek attitude towards professional media outlets versus sources of disinformation and this is in large part due to the hub’s efforts. We’ve seen the Greek public now reporting increased confidence in the professional media, increased interest in scientific sources, and a decrease in those who are affected by disinformation.
So as a cross-border whole of community network the DCN is really a model example of what’s needed to be able to effectively push back against disinformation, especially around COVID-19 pandemic.
On behalf of the U.S. government we commend you for your efforts and we are committed to supporting our ongoing partnership.
Now in closing, the Global Engagement Center is honored to stand with you as our partners as we continue to play that key role with you in this important effort. As free societies we have to remain united and we have to work together to defeat the threat posed by propaganda and disinformation from maligned actors.
Thank you all so much for your interest, for being here today, for inviting me to join you and I very much look forward to your questions.