Murrow Center at The Fletcher School hosts media and democracy conference

The Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World, part of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, hosted its first annual “Conference on New Media and Democracy” on Thursday and Friday. The theme of this year’s conference was “The Future of Democracy in the Age of Disinformation: Innovating Policy Solutions for a Networked World.” The conference had a morning and an afternoon session, each with its own theme, a keynote speaker and two panels of distinguished speakers.

Edward Schumacher-Matos, director of the Murrow Center, emphasized the work Fletcher students put in to organize the event, as well as the importance and timeliness of the conference, in his opening remarks. 

“We really wanted to focus very much today on finding solutions to many of the problems that we know exist and have been emerging and growing on the internet and on the web,” Schumacher-Matos said. 

Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School, delivered the morning keynote address. Kyte (F’02), a Fletcher alumna herself, assumed the role of dean on Oct. 1 and is the first woman to lead The Fletcher School after 13 male deans. Previously, Kyte was the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Sustainable Energy for All. Her career has been focused on climate change activism, specifically sustainable energy as the answer to climate change, and she retains this view in her new role.

“I’ve been working for the last six years intensively on, you know, one of those knife fights that we’ve got going on in the world, where the media plays such an important role, where data and evidence have been thrown out of the window or attempted to throw out of the window, and where shaping the narrative is the domain of huge amounts of money being thrown in quite explicit ways, but then in deeply subversive ways in order to move the conversation in one way or the other,” Kyte said.  

Kyte spoke to how such behavior, which she observed in issues of climate, is just as visible in realms like politics, debate and democracy. 

“I think democracy’s already very wobbly. What I’m really worried about now is the rule of law, which underpins democracy,” Kyte said. 

She hypothesized about the direction in which our “post-globalized world” is moving. 

“We’re now emerging into a world with three blocs, which will govern, I presume, or rule, around issues of media and technology and security in different ways. And it’s not just about regulatory approaches, it actually reflects a fundamentally different set of values around privacy and communication. Those three blocs are China, the EU and the U.S.,” Kyte said.

Following the keynote address, Ellysse Dick, a candidate for a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from Fletcher, introduced the first panel of the morning session: “US Information Strategy in the Cyber Era: Promoting US Interests and Preserving American Values.” 

“Communication policy and information strategy have rarely experienced this level of public scrutiny. With the credibility of American democracy under threat from foreign disinformation campaigns, the U.S. needs to engage in active attempts to counter malicious information operations,” Dick said. Dick was one of the student organizers of the conference

Thom Shanker, an editor for The New York Times, was joined in the first talk by panelists Admiral Philip Hart Cullom, a global strategic advisor, entrepreneur and energy innovator, and retired vice admiral for the U.S. Navy; Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center; David Sanger, national security correspondent at The New York Times; and Maria Barsallo Lynch, executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Defending Digital Democracy Project

The panelists covered topics including election hacking, distinctions between digital defense and digital resilience, and Russian interference in elections. 

“I went to Ukraine during their presidential election in the spring, kind of on the hunt for Russian interference, having spent a year there advising the foreign ministry, as Thom said, and seeing, on a day-to-day-basis what damage just this torrent of false and misleading information can have on a country’s foreign policy, on a country’s day-to-day operations. I think we’re seeing a lot of that brought to bear now, in the United States, unfortunately,” Jankowicz said. 

Lynch spoke about her efforts with the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P), which aims to protect and preserve democracy in the technological age. 

“It’s a combination of students, fellows, experts in technology, cybersecurity, national security, politics, who come together to provide real-time tools and solutions against cyber and information attacks that are faced by people who uphold the democratic process. And really, we call them the front-line defenders of democracy because they are ensuring that we continue to uphold these processes,” Lynch said. 

Lynch also clarified the difference between misinformation and disinformation, which is a central part of the playbook on information operations the D3P is planning to release. 

“We talk about both mis- and disinformation as a part of the toolkit of information operations, misinformation being information that is false or deceptive but that’s accidentally spread,” Lynch said. “Disinformation is false or inaccurate information that is deceptive and it’s spread on purpose, knowingly false. And that’s the category that we’ve seen more often used by foreign actors.”

The second panel of the morning session centered around the same theme, which was “National Security and Foreign Policy in the Disinformation Age.” The panel was entitled “Balkanization of the Internet: The Growing Popularity of the Chinese Firewall” and was presented in collaboration with Hitachi and moderated by Andrew Walworth, chief content officer at RealClearPolitics

While the morning session focused on identifying and outlining the main problems surrounding modern media, the afternoon session, titled “Innovating Solutions Across Sectors,” focused on searching for solutions. It was constructed the same way as the morning session, with a keynote address delivered by Richard Stengel, former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, followed by two panels.

The first panel, “Can the Platforms Save Us? The Strengths and Limits of the Private Sector,” was moderated by Casey Newton, the Silicon Valley editor at The Verge. Panelists discussed the role of the private sector in mitigating the spread of disinformation and how new forms of media are going to factor into public policy.

The second panel of the afternoon was “Can the Government Save Us? Emerging Models of Regulation and Free Speech,” moderated by Dipayan Ghosh of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. The three panelists all represented different governments — Malaysia, India and Mexico — and spoke to how each of their countries is responding to new media.

Many of the conversations at the conference stressed methods for achieving innovative solutions to recent technological and media developments. However, they also emphasized the need to recognize that these issues aren’t isolated. 

“It’s always important to remember when we talk about what’s going on today, we’re talking about a snapshot in time,” Walworth said. “It’s a real danger to think that we live in the worst of times or the best of times. Things will change.”

Editorial coordinator of the event, Anuradha Herur, a second-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate, explained that one of the goals of the conference was to include as many people as possible in the conversation.

“The idea came about as sort of a collaboration between wanting to engage thought leaders in an interesting conversation about these topics while at the same time making this accessible to students and other people that want to learn about this,” Herur said. “We may be getting a lot of experts to talk about these things but it’s accessible to all.”

Natasha Mayor contributed reporting to this article.