Former President Barack Obama gave the keynote address at a conference on disinformation in the digital age today, and he delivered some pointed words about the miasma of lies we were pummeled with in the Trump era, and are still being served in our newsfeeds.
As noted yesterday, Obama came to town for a noon event at Stanford, part of a day of discussions and panels titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm,” which was co-hosted by the Obama Foundation and Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center.
As KPIX reports, and as we can see in video of his address below, he touched on rising strongman-autocrats around the world, and the “dangerous moment” we’re in that includes Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the focus of his remarks was clearly about Trump and January 6th.
“Right here, in the United States of America, we just saw a sitting president deny the clear results of an election and help incite a violent insurrection at the nation’s capital,” Obama said. “Not only that, a majority of his party, including many who occupy some of the highest offices of the land, continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the last election and are using it to justify laws to restrict the vote and make it easier to overturn the will of the people in states where they hold power.”
Obama mentioned the Russian meddling in the 2016 election, as well.
“No one in my administration was surprised that Russia was attempting to meddle in our election – they’d been doing that for years – or that it was using social media in these efforts,” the former president 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, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself. Putin didn’t do that. He didn’t have to. We did it to ourselves.”
Note, Obama doesn’t take the stage until about the 32-minute mark in that video.
Facebook and Twitter, but mostly Facebook, seemed to be a target of his remarks as well. President Obama mentions the “harms” of the “open internet,” and says that now we’ve found, “the product has some design flaws. There are some bugs in the software.” And he called on “employees at every level” of tech companies to be “part of the solution” to the spreading of misinformation and the weaponizing of social media.
Obama notes that when it comes to news-feed algorithms, there has been “little public debate and practically no democratic oversight” despite the issue of disinformation — and the destroying of democracy — being “of enormous public interest.”
Remarks by a former president at a conference probably aren’t going to move the needle on the debates in Congress or push Facebook to do anything tomorrow. But we’ve now had Obama telling them, “What recent events remind us is that democracy is neither inevitable nor self-executing. Citizens like us have to nurture it. We have to tend to it and fight for it.”