Former President Barack Obama blamed tech companies for failing to address the misinformation problem he said the industry has amplified during a speech Thursday at Stanford University.
The new information ecosystem, fueled by the rise of mainstream social media platforms, is “accelerating some of humanity’s worst impulses”, he said in his roughly hour-long speech.
“But not all of the problems we are seeing now are an inevitable byproduct of this new technology. They are also the result of very specific choices made by companies that have come to dominate the internet in general, and social media platforms in particular. Decisions that, intentionally or not, have made democracies more vulnerable,” he said.
Some features, such as the online “veil of anonymity”, have made the problem worse, he said.
Obama highlighted the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation, discussing the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, the 2020 election conspiracies that fueled the violent riot on Capitol Hill last year, and the Russian disinformation campaigns leading to the Invasion into Ukraine.
“People love [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and Steve Bannon for that matter, understand that people don’t have to believe this information to weaken democratic institutions. All you have to do is flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theories, that citizens will no longer know what to believe,” Obama said.
“Once they lose faith in their leaders, in the mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, the possibility of truth – the game is won,” he added.
In recent months, Obama has taken a more active role in the public debate on mitigating misinformation. Earlier this month, he spoke on the subject at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago and The Atlantic.
On Thursday, the former president argued for a multi-pronged approach to tackling misinformation – including government reform, employee-led change in tech and a change in the way people work. users consume news and information online.
“Ultimately, the internet is a tool, social media is a tool. Ultimately, tools don’t control us. We control them. And we can do them again,” Obama said.
“It’s up to each of us to decide what we value and then use the tools we’ve been given to advance those values. And I believe we should use every tool at our disposal to secure our greatest gift – a government of, by and for the people for generations to come,” he said.
Without going into specific details, Obama offered his support for plans to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives tech companies a shield of legal liability against content posted by third parties. The controversial measure has been attacked by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, though there is little bipartisan consensus on how to reform it.
But he added that the issue also needed to be addressed within the industry.
“These companies need to have another North Star other than just making money and growing their market share. Solving the problem they partly helped create, but also standing up for something bigger “, did he declare.
“And to the employees of these companies and the students here at Stanford who may well be future employees of these companies, you have the power to move things in the right direction. You can advocate for change, you can be part of this overhaul – and if not, you can vote with your feet and go to work with companies that are trying to do the right thing,” he added.
In addition to changes on the ‘supply’ side, there must be a change within ‘demand’, he said.
This change starts with “breaking our information bubbles”, he said.
“I understand that there are a whole bunch of people in this country who have opinions diametrically opposed to mine. I promise they tell me all the time. I understand. I’m not saying that we all need to spend our days reading opinions we disagree with or searching for stories in the media that fundamentally don’t share our values. But it is possible to broaden our perspectives,” he said.