During a speech at Stanford University on Thursday, former U.S. President Barack Obama presented his audience with a stark choice: “Do we allow our democracy to wither, or do we make it better?”
Over the course of an hour-long address, Obama outlined the threat that disinformation online, including deepfake technology powered by AI, poses to democracy as well as ways he thought the problems might be addressed in the United States and abroad.
“This is an opportunity, it’s a chance that we should welcome for governments to take on a big important problem and prove that democracy and innovation can coexist,” Obama said.
Obama, who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017, was the keynote speaker at a one-day symposium, titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm,” co-hosted by the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation on the Stanford campus on April 21.
The event brought together people working in technology, policy, and academia for panel discussions on topics ranging from the role of government in establishing online trust, the relationship between democracy and tech companies, and the threat of digital authoritarians.
Obama told a packed audience of more than 600 people in CEMEX auditorium – as well as more than 250,000 viewers tuning in online – that everyone is part of the solution to make democracy stronger in the digital age and that all of us – from technology companies and their employees to students and ordinary citizens – must work together to adapt old institutions and values to a new era of information. “If we do nothing, I’m convinced the trends that we’re seeing will get worse,” he said.
Introducing the former president was Michael McFaul, director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, and Stanford alum and Obama Foundation fellow, Tiana Epps-Johnson, BA ’08.
Epps-Johnson, who is the founder and executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, recalled her time answering calls to an election protection hotline during the 2006 midterm election. She said the experience taught her an important lesson, which was that “the overall health of our democracy, whether we have a voting process that is fair and trustworthy, is more important than any one election outcome.”
Stanford freshman Evan Jackson said afterward that Obama’s speech resonated with him. “I use social media a lot, every day, and I’m always seeing all the fake news that can be spread easily. And I do understand that when you have controversy attached to what you’re saying, it can reach larger crowds,” Jackson said. “So if we do find a way to better contain the controversy and the fake news, it can definitely help our democracy stay powerful for our nation.”
The promise and perils technology poses to democracy
In his keynote, Obama reflected on how technology has transformed the way people create and consume media. Digital and social media companies have upended traditional media – from local newspapers to broadcast television, as well as the role these outlets played in society at large.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the American public tuned in to one of three major networks, and while media from those earlier eras had their own set of problems – such as excluding women and people of color – they did provide people with a shared culture, Obama said.
Moreover, these media institutions, with established journalistic best practices for accuracy and accountability, also provided people with similar information: “When it came to the news, at least, citizens across the political spectrum tended to operate using a shared set of facts – what they saw or what they heard from Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley.”
Fast forward to today, where everyone has access to individualized news feeds that are fed by algorithms that reward the loudest and angriest voices (and which technology companies profit from). “You have the sheer proliferation of content, and the splintering of information and audiences,” Obama observed. “That’s made democracy more complicated.”
Facts are competing with opinions, conspiracy theories, and fiction. “For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the internet. They serve as our primary source of news and information,” Obama said. “No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions, and subtle manipulations.”
The splintering of news sources has also made all of us more prone to what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” Obama said. “Inside our personal information bubbles, our assumptions, our blind spots, our prejudices aren’t challenged, they are reinforced and naturally, we’re more likely to react negatively to those consuming different facts and opinions – all of which deepens existing racial and religious and cultural divides.”
But the problem is not just that our brains can’t keep up with the growing amount of information online, Obama argued. “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.”
The former president also made clear that he did not think technology was to blame for many of our social ills. Racism, sexism, and misogyny, all predate the internet, but technology has helped amplify them.
“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 to make our democracy stronger,” Obama said.
He gave examples of how social media has fueled violence and extremism around the world. For example, leaders from countries such as Russia to China, Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil have harnessed social media platforms to manipulate their populations. “Autocrats like Putin have used these platforms as a strategic weapon against democratic countries that they consider a threat,” Obama said.
He also called out emerging technologies such as AI for their potential to sow further discord online. “I’ve already seen demonstrations of deep fake technology that show what looks like me on a screen, saying stuff I did not say. It’s a strange experience people,” Obama said. “Without some standards, implications of this technology – for our elections, for our legal system, for our democracy, for rules of evidence, for our entire social order – are frightening and profound.”
Obama discussed potential solutions for addressing some of the problems he viewed as contributing to a backsliding of democracy in the second half of his talk.
In an apt metaphor for a speech delivered in Silicon Valley, Obama compared the U.S. Constitution to software for running society. It had “a really innovative design,” Obama said, but also significant bugs. “Slavery. You can discriminate against entire classes of people. Women couldn’t vote. Even white men without property couldn’t vote, couldn’t participate, weren’t part of ‘We the People.’”
The amendments to the Constitution were akin to software patches, the former president said, that allowed us to “continue to perfect our union.”
Similarly, governments and technology companies should be willing to introduce changes aimed at improving civil discourse online and reducing the amount of disinformation on the internet, Obama said.
“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. 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,” he said.
The former president put forth various solutions for combating online disinformation, including regulation, which many tech companies fiercely oppose.
“Here in the United States, we have a long history of regulating new technologies in the name of public safety, from cars and airplanes to prescription drugs to appliances,” Obama said. “And while companies initially always complain that the rules are going to stifle innovation and destroy the industry, the truth is that a good regulatory environment usually ends up spurring innovation, because it raises the bar on safety and quality. And it turns out that innovation can meet that higher bar.”
In particular, Obama urged policymakers to rethink Section 230, enacted as part of the United States Communications Decency Act in 1996, which stipulates that generally, online platforms cannot be held liable for content that other people post on their website.
But technology has changed dramatically over the past two decades since Section 230 was enacted, Obama said. “These platforms are not like the old phone company.”He added: “In some cases, industry standards may replace or substitute for regulation, but regulation has to be part of the answer.” Obama also urged technology companies to be more transparent in how they operate and “at minimum” should share with researchers and regulators how some of their products and services are designed so there is some accountability.
The responsibility also lies with ordinary citizens, the former president said. “We have to take it upon ourselves to become better consumers of news – looking at sources, thinking before we share, and teaching our kids to become critical thinkers who know how to evaluate sources and separate opinion from fact.”
Obama warned that if the U.S. does not act on these issues, it risks being eclipsed in this arena by other countries. “As the world’s leading democracy, we have to set a better example. We should be able to lead on these discussions internationally, not [be] in the rear. Right now, Europe is forging ahead with some of the most sweeping legislation in years to regulate the abuses that are seen in big tech companies,” Obama said. “Their approach may not be exactly right for the United States, but it points to the need for us to coordinate with other democracies. We need to find our voice in this global conversation.”
In his speech on disinformation at Stanford University on Thursday, former President Barack Obama said the one thing that still “nags” at him about his time in office was his “failure to fully appreciate at the time just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself.”
It was perhaps the most revealing line in the hourlong address, in which Obama called on tech companies, their employees, lawmakers and everyday Americans to do more to combat pollution of the information ecosystem. And though he didn’t admit it outright, with that line Obama seemed to acknowledge what a lot of folks were already thinking: that this was a speech he should have given years ago.
Obama was one of Silicon Valley’s biggest champions and coziest allies from his earliest days in office. But he was also arguably one of its earliest and most high-profile victims. That even he missed the signs of what was to come says a lot about the halo that hung over tech companies during his administration.
1.This was a president who was ushered into office on a wave of racist conspiracy theories, peddled on Twitter by the man who would follow him in the White House.
2.Obama mostly dismissed the birther movement — and Trump himself. In doing so, he may have failed to really examine the role social networks played in keeping the movement alive, and what that could mean for other viral lies too.
3.At the time, ISIS’ vast online influence seemed to be the most urgent threat, and if the Obama White House was applying any pressure on Silicon Valley, it was to find and remove foreign terrorists.
4.What Obama and his administration failed to see were the threats coming from inside the house — and they weren’t alone.
Maybe that’s why it feels like, with his Stanford speech, Obama arrived late to the party. An extremely grim party, though it’s not that any of his proposals were particularly lazy or uninformed, as some politicians’ ideas about tech often are.
5.He wants transparency requirements for tech companies, including regulations that require them to share data with researchers.
6.He wants changes to Section 230 protections, particularly with regard to ads.
7.And he wants tech companies to “have some other North Star, other than just making money, and increasing market share.”
They’re not bad ideas. But they’re not exactly novel, either. And for anyone who’s been working on these issues from inside or outside of tech companies these last many years, they’re maybe even a little patronizing.
8.Obama cast this moment as an opportunity “for companies to do the right thing,” “for employees of those companies to push them to do the right thing” and “for journalists and their supporters to figure out how we adapt old institutions.”
9.But who exactly is that message for? The tech employees who have already catalyzed a worker activism movement? The newsrooms that have already spent years adapting and keep getting crushed every time the social media landscape changes? The people on the left who already believe social media created Trump and Jan. 6 and election conspiracy theories? The people on the right who haunted Obama’s own presidency with those conspiracies and who won’t accept him as messenger?
No, Obama was preaching to the congregation and to the preachers themselves: the people already doing the work he called on them to do. Still, it does lend some gravitas to an issue when a former president makes that issue his own personal mission.
The speech was noteworthy not so much for what was said as who said it. Silicon Valley was the darling of the Obama years, an economic bright spot in dark times and a shining example of American innovation. That Obama is the one now casting tech’s failures as an existential threat to democracy is a sign of just how far the industry’s political fortunes have fallen.
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