STANFORD (CBS SF) — Using the Jan. 6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol and Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine as examples, former President Barack Obama spoke about the dangers of the age of misinformation for democracies around the world in a speech calling for increased regulation of tech giants and social media companies.
The former president was delivering the keynote address at a Stanford University event on Thursday afternoon. The event, co-hosted by the Obama Foundation and the university’s Cyber Policy Center, was Obama’s latest step in his ongoing efforts to warn the public about the dangers of misinformation and misinformation.
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Obama began his speech by highlighting what he called a “dangerous moment in history”, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine being the latest in a broader trend of autocrats and budding strongmen being emboldened across the world.
He quickly pivoted to the efforts of the United States Capitol insurgency and former President Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election results.
“Right here in the United States of America, we have just seen a sitting president deny the clear results of an election and help incite a violent insurrection in the nation’s capital,” Obama said. “Not only that, the majority of his party, including those in some of the highest offices in the country, continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the last election and use it to justify laws to limit the vote and make it easier to overthrow the will of the people in the states where they hold power.
Obama said these events are aided by the manipulation of social media and the flood of disinformation aimed at influencing millions of people. He made it clear Russia interfered in the 2016 election with its strategic use of disinformation, and these state-sponsored social media campaigns are more effective than most people realize.
“Nobody in my administration was surprised that Russia was trying to interfere in our election — they had done that for years — or was using social media in those efforts,” Obama said. “What still nags to me, however, was my failure to appreciate at the time how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of misinformation myself. -same. Putin did not do this. He didn’t have to. We did it to ourselves.
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Doing nothing to address the problem of misinformation will result in the trends we see online today fueling racism, hate speech, and conspiracy theories, Mr. Obama said, and the tools needed to foment the “big lie” will become more sophisticated.
Obama called for the development of additional strategies and innovations to respond to the organized spread of disinformation, including regulation of public speech online and government oversight of tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. The guiding principle of any proposed change to the Internet and social media would be whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy democracy.
“Let it encourage robust debate and respect for our differences. If it strengthens the rule of law and self-government. If it helps us make collective decisions based on the best information available, and if it recognizes the rights, freedoms and dignity of all our citizens,” he said. “Whatever changes contribute to this vision, I am for it. Anything that erodes that vision, I’m against.
Obama said at least in the years since the Cold War ended, democracies have grown dangerously complacent and its citizens have taken freedom for granted.
“What recent events remind us is that democracy is neither inevitable nor self-executing,” Obama said. “Citizens like us have to feed it. We must reach out and fight for it. And, as our circumstances change, we must be prepared to look at ourselves critically and make reforms that will allow democracy not just to survive, but to thrive.”
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