Barack Obama famously launched his longshot presidential bid in 2007 from Springfield, Illinois, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s own longshot campaign for the presidency in 1860. Today, the former president came to Stanford University, the birthplace of Silicon Valley, to launch his latest longshot campaign: to battle disinformation in American media. Obama gave the keynote speech at the Stanford Symposium: Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm, a day-long series of panels by Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center.
Obama waxed poetic about Stanford itself, calling it the birthplace of Silicon Valley and saying “The essence of Stanford is the spirit of innovation.”
He began by extolling the benefits of the digital revolution, specifically the ability of the internet to connect the world’s citizens. He remarked that the internet had connected billions of people, noting: “The internet has been tranformative. There’s no turning back.”
But he pointed out that the proliferation of media outlets brought about by the internet has come at a cost. We have lost a shared culture.
This series of unintended consequences has resulted in a threat to the ability of a democracy to have an informed citizenry. Tech companies face the pressure to maximize engagement. Much of the vitriol on the web is fueled by anonymity. Worst of all, personalization is great for ads but terrible for a shared culture. Obama noted that when an algorithm promotes the most sensational rather than the most credible, “We lose our capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion, and fiction.”
Obama spoke to the local concerns of his tech-savvy audience when he arrived at the solutions portion of his speech. He likened American democracy to a spectacular computer program that has always had bugs that need to be discovered and fixed. “We’ve learned that the product has some bugs in the software.”
He listed some the of bugs of American democracy: “Slavery. Women couldn’t vote. Men without property couldn’t vote. The software had bugs. We came up with patches like the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. We made democracy better.”
The former president warned that if Americans don’t take on the challenge, the consequence will be dire. “In the competition between truth and falsehood—design of the platforms is tilting us in the wrong direction.” Obama chastised his own administration for not understanding the depth of the problem. “Steve Bannon knew that it’s not necessary to believe the information—just flood the public square with enough raw sewage—raise questions, spread dirt, plant conspiracies so that citizens no longer know what to believe.”
But he saved his most direct criticisms for the Trump wing of the Republican Party. “Republicans can’t keep saying the election was stolen. This isn’t gonna work. They need to pick a side.”
He criticized Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian approach as not only wrong but self-defeating. “Russia is an example of what happens when societies lose track of what it true. Ukraine shows what can happen when societies push back.” But he pointed out that Putin didn’t create most of the legitimacy problems in America. “We did it to ourselves. Putin didn’t have to do it.”
Always an optimist, Obama closed with soaring rhetoric and concrete solutions. He especially focused on increasing transparency and regulation from the tech companies in the outcomes of their algorithms. He stressed the need for more, not less speech. He suggested that the tech companies, who profited by redistributing the journalism of others, should now be part of the solution by investing in journalism, especially local journalism. “Companies need to find ways to support local news.”
In the end, Obama said citizens need to regain mastery of their digital tools. “TV is a tool. The internet is a tool. Social media is a tool. Tools don’t control us. We control them and we can remake them.” He eschewed naiveté, but then used a quote inspired by Lincoln. “Divisions aren’t going away. We need to encourage the better angels of our nature. A healthy democracy depends on it.”
Then he switched back from the clouds to his more practical, even nerdy demeanor: “We need to decide what we value and use the tools to advance it.”