Former President Barack Obama's Speech at Stanford University Regarding Disinformation
APRIL 21, 2022 updated April 22, at 12:51 pm PT
Stanford University News (Silicon Valley, California - San Jose)
BY MELISSA DE WITTE, TAYLOR KUBOTA, AND KER THAN
Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm
Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a keynote address about how information is created and consumed, and the threat that disinformation poses to democracy. "Regulation has to be part of the answer to combating online disinformation", Barack Obama said at the Stanford event
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?
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. 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 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's 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. 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 (the little PU Man) 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."
"Regulation has to be part of the answer" 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."
The Power of Narrative
Obama made a surprise appearance at the symposium's afternoon panel moderated by Eileen Donahoe, executive director of Stanford's Global Digital Policy Incubator.
"I learned something just from the brief time I was here," Obama said to the audience at the Bechtel Conference Center. "I'm looking forward to all these younger people solving this problem now that I've thrown it out," he said, gesturing to some of the students attending the panel, which was on (how to defend open democratic systems in a global digitized world?).
Donahoe, who served under Obama as the U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, remarked: "I think it's fair to say we may never have had a president so disinclined to push people toward polarization, and you certainly demonstrated that in your speech today." Obama interrupted, "I thought you were going to say a better-looking president." The audience erupted in laughter. "That too," Donahoe quipped back, and went on to say: "But the other side is [you're] so gifted at using narrative to motivate people, and that is a unique combination."
Also speaking at the symposium was investigative journalist Maria Ressa whose courageous reporting earned her the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa joined a panel moderated by Marietje Schaake, the international policy director at the Cyber Policy Center. Ressa said her critical reporting of the abuse of power and violence of (her authoritarian-home) regime and (the government's) efforts to suppress her and her colleagues' findings has shown her firsthand the corrosive effect of disinformation on democratic norms.
"I became a journalist because information is power," said Ressa, who is the CEO and co-founder of the digital news site Rappler. "When information is wrong or when the tech platform that delivers the news is biased against facts or they don't distinguish it's like introducing a virus and then everyone getting infected by it." Ressa said the (named country) is an example of how an assault on the truth and facts can harm civic engagement and eventually destroy democracy. "You cannot have integrity of elections if you don't have integrity of facts. And we don't have integrity of facts," Ressa said.
At the end of the panel discussion, Schaake asked the panelists for solutions to the troubled relationship between democracy, media, and the information environment. Ressa responded, "I think the only option you have right now, that needs to kick in, is regulation and it should not be downstream at content moderation. It should be at the algorithmic level and at the [level of] surveillance capitalism," which refers to the concept of tracking customers' personal data for profit.