The free flow of information about Russia’s war on Ukraine was a focus of this year’s TED – Technology, Environment and Design – conference in Vancouver, Canada. It was the first such gathering of esteemed speakers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and architect Alison Killing was among the eclectic group of speakers opening the conference. She won the journalism award for using satellite imagery and open-source information to help uncover detention and forced labor camps in China’s Xinjiang region.
Killing spoke days after reports emerged of satellite imagery showing possible war crimes being committed by Russia in Ukraine. She told VOA one of the best ways to keep information flowing into Ukraine and Russia is for private citizens in both countries to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, on the internet.
“I think that open-source data and investigations have a really important role to play in helping to provide good information and in providing that information in a way that anyone can go and check it,” she said.
But Killing added that information, as always, must be fact-checked.
Bektour Iskender, who runs Kloop – a blogging website he started in 2007 to counter state-controlled media in Kyrgyzstan – said if governments are going to block websites, the more the better, because that encourages people to start using VPNs and other methods to seek independent sources of information.
“The worst situation, I think, is when a few media outlets are blocked, but like 95% is available, and then people just don’t care about the ones which are blocked, because they still have most of information available,” Iskender said. “But when you have like 50% of media, content blocked, then people start caring.”
Katherine Mangu-Ward, the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine, said that while social media sites can play an important role in disseminating unfiltered information from sources on the ground, it’s important not to lose focus on who is doing the censoring and why.
“I think people can really get caught up in debates about misinformation on Facebook and, you know, who’s gatekeeping Twitter,” she said. “They can forget that there is a much, much more serious threat, which is authoritarian states, just bottlenecking true information about really, really important issues like Russia’s role in Ukraine right now.”
Billionaire Elon Musk appeared at the conference hours after announcing a $43 billion takeover bid for Twitter. The co-founder of electric car manufacturer Tesla said he would change the social media platform, including allowing users to edit tweets after posting them and making Twitter’s algorithms open source.
Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates launched his upcoming book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic. He urged developed countries collectively to spend $1 billion a year to prevent future pandemics by creating a team he called Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization, or GERM. The team would be made up of 3,000 doctors, diplomats, and policy and communication experts who would work with the World Health Organization to contain any future pandemic contagions within 100 days.
In an unusual move for the conference, TED head curator Chris Anderson started by asking the assembled crowd and those watching online to donate to five organizations helping with humanitarian relief in Ukraine. A total of $2.15 million was pledged by attendees to help relief efforts in Ukraine.