PALO ALTO, Calif. (KRON) — Former President Barack Obama delivered a keynote speech at Stanford University Thursday about “disinformation,” and challenges to democracy in the digital information realm.
Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter had a “profound change in how we communicate and consume information,” Obama said.
Avalanches of information shared, liked, and retweeted also contain many piles of misinformation.
Obama delivered his speech on Stanford University’s Palo Alto campus in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the digital revolution began.
“Being here makes me want to go back to college,” Obama said, before admitting that, “18-year-old Barack Obama” would not have been accepted by Stanford.
“I got a little more serious later,” said Obama, who attended Occidental College in Pasadena for part of his undergraduate education.
Instant global communication developed by Silicon Valley tech giants had unintended negative consequences, weakening democracy here in the US and around the world, the former president said.
“Right here in the United States of America, we just saw a sitting president deny the clear results of an election. And incite a violent insurrection at the nation’s capital,” Obama said in reference to former President Donald Trump.
“This should serve as a wakeup call. Democracy is not inevitable. Citizens like us have to nurture it, tend to it, and fight for it,” Obama said.
“I am amazed by the Internet. It has connected billions of people around the world. I might have never been elected president if it wasn’t for websites like Myspace, Meetup, and Facebook to organize and spread our message,” Obama said.
The Internet’s information revolution had a transformative impact on society.
We now live in a world with a 24/7 instant information stream, and there’s no turning back, Obama said.
“This progress has come at a price with unintended consequences,” he said.
“Today information is fed directly into our phones. It’s made us prone to what psychologists call confirmation bias. Our prejudices are not challenged, they are reinforced,” Obama said.
“A lot of us are experiencing overload,” he said.
Twenty years ago, Facebook’s news feed did not exist. A conservative cattle rancher living in Texas was not sitting at home feeling offended by what was happening in San Francisco’s Castro District, Obama said.
Obama said social media companies are private companies driven and motivated to maximize profits. More users, engagement, shares, and retweets mean more profits for the tech giants through advertising.
This reality has made democracy more vulnerable because, “unfortunately, inflammatory, polarizing content attracts and engages,” Obama said.
Americans are struggling to see the difference between “hucksters” misinformation from factual information, the former president said.
“Internet platforms serve as our primary source of information. We see a constant feed of content flow alongside junk science, lies, and conspiracy theories. Over time, we lose our capacity to see the difference between fact and fiction. Or maybe we just stop caring. If you want to rise about the din, go viral. Being liked and shared, peddling controversy, outrage, and even hate often gives you an edge,” Obama said.
“Scientists developed safe and effective vaccines in record time. But one in five Americans will not get vaccinated. People are dying because of misinformation,” Obama said.
As another example, Obama pointed out that the U.S. Justice Department uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the last presidential election. Yet some Americans still believe President Joe Biden “stole” the election from Trump.
Obama said it’s important for all parents to teach their children how to be critical thinkers and how to check sources, also known as online media literacy.
“You need to ask, is this person typing in his underwear from his mother’s basement really an authority on climate change?” Obama said as the crowd laughed.
At the same time, social media has accelerated the decline of traditional news sources such as local newspapers.
Where do we go from here?
“If we do nothing, the trends we are seeing will get worse. With Artificial Intelligence, disinformation will grow more sophisticated,” Obama said.
The former president said Silicon Valley has the power to be part of the solution.
“There are bugs in the software. We don’t have to just leave it like that. We can make it better,” Obama said.
Freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment, and Obama said he is a strong believer in that freedom.
“There is a reason why it came first. I believe the free, robust, and sometimes antagonistic exchange of ideas produces better outcomes. (However) we have to address the supply of toxic information and the demand for it. Tech companies have a unique role for how we as a people consume information. Their decisions have an impact on society,” Obama said.
Tech companies running social media platforms need to be regulated with public oversight, and become transparent about how they operate and use algorithms.
“We don’t expect tech companies to solve these problems on their own. We do expect these companies to affirm the importance of our democratic institutions, not dismiss them,” Obama said.