Remarks: NDI President Derek Mitchell at DISICON Conference on Information Integrity

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Remarks by NDI President Derek Mitchell 

“DISICON” Conference on Information Integrity with NDI Kosovo 

Virtual Event 

June 9, 2021

As Prepared

Hello, everyone.  It is my great pleasure to provide some opening remarks at NDI/Kosovo’s second “DISICON” conference on information integrity – a critical subject for us all.  

Safeguarding the integrity of the information we are exposed to – defined as access to reliable, authentic, inclusive and non-violent information is a global challenge these days. 

Over the next two days, this DISICON conference will discuss the growing threat to Kosovo’s democracy, and how best to combat it.

But before I say more on that subject, I want to say a few thank you’s.  First, I want to thank Ambassador Philip Kosnett, whom you will hear from next, for his strong support for NDI in Kosovo, as well as for his excellent service to the United States, and USAID Mission Director, Lisa Magno and her entire USAID team for their strong support for this and many other NDI programs in Kosovo.  We literally could not do what we do without your partnership and support, and we cannot be more grateful.  

I want to thank all the many distinguished speakers and participants who will take part in this conference over the next two days.  We are deeply honored for your time and presence.  Thank you all for joining.

While I have the opportunity, let me extend a heartfelt shout-out to the NDI team in Pristina.  The team has worked in partnership over two decades with Kosovo’s democratic leaders, institutions, and citizens.  I traveled to Pristina almost exactly two years ago now and was tremendously impressed by their hard work, amazing energy and skill, and patriotic commitment to their country.  Thank you, team, for all you continue to do.

And I am particularly pleased that Ambassador Nancy Soderberg has just arrived in Pristina – finally - to lead the NDI team.  Nancy has been working from Florida over the past year but been itching to get out there on site and has finally been able to do so.  I have known Nancy for longer than maybe either of us will acknowledge, but Kosovo cannot have a smarter, more experienced, dedicated and enthusiastic advocate for the country and its democratic future than she.  

We are all fortunate she has agreed to take on this new assignment.

Over the next two days, we will hear from local and international experts on information integrity about the growing threat to us all of disinformation and how we can combat it.  

Simply put, our democracies – all democracies - rely on access to accurate information - not only so our voters can make informed decisions, but also to hold our leaders accountable.  

The media industry is constantly changing, sometimes in unpredictable ways. How we get information in the digital era has likewise evolved in dramatic ways. 

While the internet has empowered billions with access to knowledge - it has also empowered those seeking to undermine democracy, and created more avenues for vitriol and abuse against women, LGBTQI+ communities, and other marginalized groups.  

We use the term “disinformation,” but that’s really shorthand for the broader problem of information manipulation. Disinformation is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm; misinformation is information that’s incorrect, but there’s no intent to deceive.  

Information integrity may also be violated when information is technically accurate, but is presented in a misleading context, under false pretenses, or is artificially amplified. That includes hate speech. 

It’s important to take into account the whole package of information manipulation when looking at the problem.

That means we all must be aware of the threat and develop ways to protect our societies - and democracies – against it as a matter of national security.

Without reliable, authentic information, citizens cannot exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities freely and effectively.  Manipulated information can lower public trust in a country’s governing and oversight institutions, and in its media, exploit social and political divisions, and weaken democratic institutions.  

Kosovo is by no means immune from this threat.  

NDI assessments have found Kosovo’s information environment to be saturated with disinformation and other forms of manipulation and harmful speech.  

We have found strong anecdotal evidence of both international and domestic actors using disinformation to sway electoral outcomes, suppress investigative media coverage, and exploit ethnic and other social cleavages. 

Many conditions in Kosovo make the ground fertile for disinformation - the pandemic, the economic situation, deep political and ethnic divisions, recent elections, and the dialogue with Serbia. 

Separate Albanian language and Serbian language news and information sources also make Kosovo quite vulnerable to information manipulation, as partisan actors see an opportunity to exploit divisions and biases to mobilize voters, score quick political hits against opponents, and distract public focus. 

In this way, disinformation becomes normalized and commercialized for political gain. 

In 2017, NDI launched a global program to better understand this growing threat and help our global partners develop ways to counter it. 

Recognizing the importance of a stronger information environment for Kosovo’s emerging democracy in particular, NDI/Kosovo, with the generous support of USAID, began a program in 2019, to comprehensively and systematically assess the integrity of information in Kosovo’s traditional and on-line media in order to better understand the impact of disinformation on your country. 

We will hear many of the findings from that assessment over the next two days here at DISICON. 

Our intention overall is to help local journalists and NGOs – including partners like the Association of Journalists in Kosovo - to better monitor and analyze the information environment, and develop the skills to build a strong foundation for information integrity in Kosovo.  

Our hope is that these partnerships evolve into a hub of coordinated activity among a variety of actors in Kosovo that will continue to analyze and ultimately combat future information disorders. 

I hope this conference galvanizes many of you to do the same, and that you take advantage of this opportunity to network and discuss the complex challenges to Kosovo’s information environment. 

I hope that you share ideas, brainstorm on creative tools, and ask questions of your colleagues from different sectors - from politics, technology, academia, media, and civil society.  Because Kosovo must develop a concrete and comprehensive strategy to address the challenge of information integrity.  To be successful, it must be a whole-of-society effort.

NDI is proud to be able to organize this conference in partnership with USAID.  We remain strongly committed to working with partners like you all there in Kosovo and globally to address the threat to information integrity worldwide, and make our democracies more resilient to stress. Thank you all for joining, and I wish you the best over the next two days at DISICON.  Thank you. 

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