Former President Obama placed blame on tech companies for failing to address the disinformation problem he said the industry has amplified during a speech Thursday at Stanford University.
The new information ecosystem, fueled by the rise of dominant social media platforms, is “turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses,” he said in the roughly hourlong speech.
“But not all problems we’re seeing now are an inevitable byproduct of this new technology. They’re also the result of very specific choices, made by the companies that have come to dominate the internet generally, and social media platforms in particular. Decisions that intentionally or not have made democracies more vulnerable,” he said.
Certain features, such as the “veil of anonymity” online, have compounded the problem, he said.
Obama highlighted the real-world impacts of the spread of disinformation, discussing the spread of false information about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, 2020 election conspiracies that fueled the violent riot at the Capitol last year and Russian disinformation campaigns leading up to the invasion of Ukraine.
“People like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and Steve Bannon for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions. You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing, that citizens no longer know what to believe,” Obama said. Bannon is a former strategist for former President Trump.
“Once they lose trust in their leaders, mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, the possibility of truth — the game’s won,” he added.
Obama has in recent months taken a more active role in the public conversation around mitigating disinformation. Earlier this month, he spoke on the topic at a conference organized by the University of Chicago and The Atlantic.
On Thursday, the former president advocated for a multipronged approach to combat disinformation — including from government reform, tech employee-led change and a shift in the way users consume news and information online.
“At the end of the day the internet is a tool, social media is a tool. At the end of the day tools don’t control us. We control them. And we can remake them,” 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 detail, Obama offered support to plans to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives tech companies a legal liability shield from content posted by third parties. The controversial measure has been attacked by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, though there is little bipartisan consensus on how to reform it.
But he said the issue must also be addressed within the industry.
“These companies need to have some other North star other than just making money and increasing market share. Fix the problem that in part they helped create, but also to stand for something bigger,” he said.
“And to the employees of these companies and to the students here at Stanford who might 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 redesign — and if not, you can vote with your feet and go and work with companies that are trying to do the right thing,” he added.
In addition to changes on the “supply” side, there needs to be a shift within the “demand,” he said.
That change starts with “breaking through our information bubbles,” he said.
“I understand that there are a whole bunch of people in this country who have views diametrically opposed to mine. I promise they tell me all the time. I get it. I’m not suggesting that all of us have to spend our days reading opinions we disagree with or looking for media stories that fundamentally don’t share our values. But it is possible to broaden our perspectives,” he said.