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2023 Commencement: Prof. Rick Dunham warns about dangers of disinformation amid global "infodemic"

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Rick Dunham: "The Global Business Journalism program is part of the solution. Truth matters to us." (Photo illustration by Alex Shute/Unsplash)

The Global Business Journalism website is pleased to share the complete texts of many of the speakers at our 2023 graduation ceremonies. Today we hear from Rick Dunham, the co-director of Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University and a former president of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

大家好。 Da jia hao. Good afternoon.

Today is a day of great joy for the Global Business Journalism family. For the first time since the global coronavirus pandemic, we’re celebrating our commencement in person, on campus.

All of you in the graduating Class of 2023 have faced unique challenges in pursuit of your degree – from the threat of a deadly virus, to the vagaries of remote learning, to the difficulties in obtaining a Chinese visa. But you have met every challenge and succeeded, even if you may have had some doubts along the way. You’re a remarkable group, and I feel honored to have worked so closely with you for the past two (or three) years.

Rick Dunham: "Partisan and extremist web sites have created societal schisms so profound that we can’t even agree on many basic facts"

Congratulations to our nine Chinese graduates and our 11 international graduates – Bisma, Gillian, Amy, Roger, Coline, Rida, Mateusz, Maria, Katarina in Ukraine, Eason, and Nawreen in Canada. We are proud of Irina, who has completed all of the course requirements of the GBJ program. And it is a special pleasure to welcome back Farah Mubarak, who were unable to receive her diploma in person last year because of the pandemic. We are happy to have you here on campus again as we return to normal life after the pandemic.

COVID-19 challenged national and international institutions spanning healthcare, the economy, government, and media. The global media system was chaotically disrupted by something that World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus called an “infodemic.”

The word he coined is a shortened version of “information epidemic,” and it refers to the toxic mix of deliberate lies, unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories spread across our information ecosystem.

But while the word “infodemic” was first used in reference to COVID, it applies equally to the explosion of malicious falsehoods that have poisoned civil discourse worldwide.

Partisan and extremist web sites have created societal schisms so profound that we can’t even agree on many basic facts, from the threats posed by climate change to the safety of life-saving vaccines. Unsubstantiated rumors about the origins of the coronavirus have poisoned the minds of tens of millions of people in the United States, China and beyond. Social media platforms fuel this malignant force, unable or unwilling to put an end to gossip and lies. As a result of the confusion created by false news, many global citizens now dismiss truthful news reports as illegitimate.

We are living in a world where, as Rudy Giuliani, the longtime lawyer to Donald Trump, said infamously, “Truth isn’t truth.”

Sadly, truth isn’t truth in parts of the world. Trump, during his four years as president, spread more than 30,000 untruths, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog. As a result of Trumpian “alternative truths,” most Republicans in the United States believe that Joe Biden was not the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election.

In Russia, Kremlin apologists will not even utter the simple truth that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is indeed an invasion. One Russian TV host repeated the preposterous hoax that NATO soldiers are the main fighting force killing Russians. Ukrainian soldiers, he said, were there to pose for Western media.

The United Nations agency UNESCO lists misinformation and disinformation as global threats that can be “a matter of life and death.” In the first three months of 2020, COVID misinformation caused the deaths of at least 800 people and the hospitalization of more than 6,000 others.

In the news business, where our credibility is our most important asset, there is widespread fear that the toxic atmosphere undermines our ability to convey truth to the masses. According to the Pew Research Center, 94% of journalists say that made-up news is either a very big or a moderately big problem.

Barrows Dunham

Truth matters. As my grandfather, the American philosopher Barrows Dunham, wrote in his 1953 book, “Giant in Chains,” if truth and falsity ever become indistinguishable, “there is no longer any hope of rational guidance over human affairs.”

We journalists don’t represent any particular political ideology, political party or nation – although each of us may have ideals, party memberships and citizenships. We represent the public. We represent the truth. It is the job of all of us to seek out and share the truth at a time when powerful and sometimes opaque forces are spreading lies both little and big.

The Global Business Journalism program is part of the solution. Truth matters to us.

Since its creation in 2007, Global Business Journalism has been a worldwide leader in cross-cultural journalism education. GBJ is inclusive. GBJ welcomes diverse views. GBJ respects our cultural, political and religious differences. We learn from each other. We make each other better people and better professionals.

Despite the infodemic we face, I am optimistic about our future. I’m optimistic because I have worked closely with all of you, and I know your intellectual brilliance, your ferocious motivation, your ability to overcome obstacles, and your commitment to making the world a better place.

Congratulation to you and your families! Your GBJ family is proud of you.

谢谢, 大家。 Xiexie, da jia. Thank you.



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