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Obama says disinformation erodes democracy

Published: Apr. 22, 2022 at 7:16 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 22, 2022 at 7:17 AM EDT
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PALO ALTO, Calif. (CNN) - In a rare public appearance Thursday, former President Barack Obama said disinformation and conspiracy theories have led to the rise of strongmen like Vladimir Putin.

Obama warned that the foundation of democracy is at risk like never before.

“People like 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,” Obama said. “You just have to raise enough questions spread enough dirt. Plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe.”

Obama came to Stanford, the heart of Silicon Valley, Thursday with a warning about the threat that disinformation poses to American democracy – putting Putin and former Trump adviser Bannon in the same sentence and saying he underestimated in 2016 how powerful conspiracy theories had become.

“No one in my administration was surprised that Russia was attempting to meddle in our election,” he said. “What does still nag at me, though, was my failure to fully appreciate at the time just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories.”

Those lies and conspiracy theories are still very much alive in the U.S.

“We just saw a sitting president deny the clear results of an election and help incite a violent insurrection at the nation’s Capitol,” Obama said. “Social media did not create racism or white supremacist groups. All these things existed long before the first tweet or Facebook Poke. Solving the disinformation problem won’t cure all that ails our democracies or tears at the fabric of our world. But it can help tamp down divisions and let us rebuild the trust and solidarity needed.”

Obama laid out how he believes social media algorithms designed to maximize engagement and keep people hooked are contributing to a crisis in democracy.

“Unfortunately, it turns out that inflammatory polarizing content attracts and engages. Other features of these platforms have compounded the problem, for example, the way content looks on your phone, as well as the veil of anonymity that platforms provide their users,” Obama said. “A lot of times can make it impossible to tell the difference between say a peer-reviewed article by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a miracle cure being pitched by a huckster. People are dying because of misinformation.”

Obama said it is time for social media companies to step up.

“Tech platforms need to accept that they play a unique role in how we as a people and people around the world are consuming information and that their decisions have an impact on every aspect of society. With that power comes accountability,” he said.

And the former president called for more transparency from these platforms, also speaking a little bit about how the U.S. government could possibly regulate big tech without going down the line of trying to censor speech in any way which, of course, would be against the First Amendment here in the United States.

Obama didn’t go into a lot of specifics about that very thorny issue of possible government regulation, but he is saying and he is trying to put all of this on the agenda, saying there needs to be a public debate about all of it, and it needs to happen urgently.

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