Technology companies must be reined in to address the “weakening of democratic institutions around the world”, Barack Obama said Thursday, in a sweeping keynote speech on the perils of disinformation.
Speaking at Stanford University in Silicon Valley, the former president made his most extensive remarks yet about the technology landscape, which he said is “turbo-charging some of humanity’s worst impulses”.
“One of the biggest reasons for the weakening of democracy is the profound change that’s taken place in how we communicate and consume information,” he said.
The address came as Obama has increasingly focused his post-presidential messaging on misinformation and what should be done about the largely unchecked power wielded by big tech. On Thursday, he solidified those calls, endorsing specific legislation.
“Do we allow our democracy to wither, or do we make it better?” Obama asked. “That is the choice.”
Obama’s speech called attention to the grave impacts of disinformation and misinformation – including manipulation of the 2016 and 2020 elections and the rise of anti-vaccination sentiments.
He was candid about regrets he had surrounding Donald Trump’s election, saying his administration had long known that Russia had incentive to manipulate US democracy but he underestimated the effectiveness of the efforts.
“What still nags at me is my failure to appreciate at the time just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories,” Obama said.
A Senate panel report in 2020 found conclusively that Russia had interfered in the 2016 elections to sway votes in favor of Trump, echoing findings from a prior report published by the Department of Justice.
In addition to impacting the results of those elections, disinformation and misinformation has also caused many Americans to reject the results of democratically sound elections, Obama said – noting that the majority of Republicans doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 win.
Much of these issues can be attributed to a decline in media literacy, the erosion of local news sources, and an “information overload” as we come into contact with limitless content each day.
“The sheer proliferation of conflict and the splintering of information and audiences has made democracy more complicated,” Obama said.
Obama took aim at the business models at the heart of big tech firms, noting that “inflammatory content attracts engagement” and that “the veil of anonymity platforms provide” make it easier to spread misinformation.
He said while rising industry standards are helpful, solid regulation is needed to address social media companies’ business models and the way they design their products.
“These companies need to have some other north star other than just making money and increasing market share,” Obama said.
In particular, Obama addressed the frequent refrain of tech companies that their algorithms are proprietary business secrets, saying they have become “too guarded” and “need to be subject to some level of public oversight and regulation”.
To do so, Obama endorsed the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, a bill introduced by US Senators Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar and Rob Portman that would require social media companies to share certain platform data and allow vetting from independent researchers.
He also called for reform of Section 230, a law that shields platforms from legal liability for content posted on their sites, saying that “wholesale repeal is not the answer” but “we need to consider reforms” to the measure.
“As the world’s leading democracy, we have to set a better example. We should be at the lead on these discussions internationally, not in the rear.”
Despite dire warnings about the imminent crumbling of democracy under the disinformation epidemic, Obama called for a return to the hope present in the early days of big tech.
“Today’s social media has a grimness to it,” he said. “We’re so fatalistic about the steady stream of bile and vitriol that’s on there. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, if we’re going to succeed, it can’t be that way.”
Obama’s tone harkens back to an age of tech before the 2016 elections shook the world’s faith in companies like Facebook. His own presidency took place at a time when social media was still thought of as a force for good – stoking democratic revolutions like the Arab Spring.
His election in 2008 is also largely thought of as one of the first to be fueled by grassroots social media campaigns – with supporters of Obama having been significantly more engaged online than those of McCain. Obama said at the time there was “a certain joy of finding new ways to connect and organize”.
“Social media is a tool. At the end of the day, tools don’t control us, we control 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.”