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 threats that disinformation online 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.”
The promise and perils technology poses to democracy
In his speech, Obama reflected on how technology has transformed how 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.
“For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the internet. … No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions and subtle manipulations.”
—Former U.S. President Barack Obama
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 the same 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.
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.
‘Regulation has to be part of the answer’
Obama discussed potential solutions for addressing some of the problems he thought were 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.”