A former President of the United States faces a variety of major issues after leaving office. Jimmy Carter worked in housing. Bill Clinton spent much of his time fighting HIV and AIDS. Barack Obama, who has been out of office for six years, has had a rather quiet post-presidency period so far. But in recent weeks he has begun to draw attention to a problem that advisers say is becoming more and more important to him: Disinformation and the broader issues with our fragmented information ecosystem.
In the months following President Donald Trump’s impeachment, what could at times feel like an all-encompassing focus on disinformation in the technical and political press began to take a back seat. The shift is understandable: Trump was the most prominent spreader of disinformation in the world, and when he lost access to the Oval Office and his Twitter account, dozens of false claims that the media would otherwise have spent all day running down disappeared. simply from The headlines.
At the same time, Trumpism – particularly his false claim that the election was rigged for Joe Biden – has remained an ugly, powerful current in American life. More than a year after Biden’s inauguration, Republican politicians continue to repeat the big lie and successfully use it as an excuse to disenfranchise them. Occasionally, this sort of disinformation even seeps into the mainstream American press — as a Michigan media outlet described this week: “the Republican secretary of state hopes to be able to fight voter fraud” normalization the idea that elections could otherwise be stolen.
On the one hand, the degradation of our information environment is plain to see: tech platforms that have historically been all but indifferent to the quality of the information they promoted; a decline in jobs in journalism, particularly in local and regional publications across the country; and a polarized citizenry that increasingly doubts the legitimacy of American democracy.
On the other hand, as I wrote yesterday, It can be easy to overdo the notion that information quality alone is at the root of our problems. In other words, like Matt Yglesias did Getting boring this week is that is disinformation too easily scapegoated by Democrats trying to whitewash some pretty unsexy political issues. Yglesias calls it “a self-exculpation” and fears it’s an electoral impasse:
Less educated people are less knowledgeable and less media literate, and that’s not ideal. But Democrats need to read the correlation in the right direction and put more effort into appealing to their values, not dismissing them as too misinformed to be reached.
Twice in the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to see Obama pleading for the urgency of fighting disinformation. The first was at a fireside chat with Jeffrey Goldberg at a conference organized by The Atlantic in Chicago. In that conversation, Obama said he was surprised at how vulnerable American institutions were to those who flooded the airwaves with lies. And he fears these lies pose an existential threat to democracy.
“It’s very difficult for us to get out of the reality that’s been engineered for us,” he told Goldberg. “And that’s one of the reasons why the stakes on this issue are so important, because it’s difficult for me to see how we’re going to win the competition of ideas when we can’t actually agree on a base of facts that supports that.” allow marketplace of ideas for work.”
On Thursday I heard the refined version of that argument. Obama paid a visit to Stanford University in Palo Alto delivered an hour-long keynote speech at a conference entitled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Realm”.
Normally, when a politician migrates to this realm, I brace myself for the inch-deep thoughts and half-baked solutions that almost always follow. But Obama was clearly reading – his speech today demonstrated his superb grasp of the scope and significance of our online problems, while also acknowledging the limitations of an approach focused solely on eliminating disinformation to fix our democracy .
In particular, he preceded his criticism by speaking about the power and potential of a free and open internet — something that seems to have fallen out of favor with both Democrats and Republicans alike. And he acknowledged that social platforms have contributed to his own rise.
“I might never have been elected president if it weren’t for — and I’m dating myself here — sites like MySpace, Meetup and Facebook that allowed an army of young volunteers to get organized, raise money and spreading our message,” he said. “And since then, we’ve all witnessed activists using social platforms to register dissent, highlight injustice, and mobilize people on issues like climate change and racial justice.”
The problem, he said, is that “our new information ecosystem is accelerating some of humanity’s worst impulses.” Some of it was intentional, he said, some not. But ultimately it requires a response at the societal level. Otherwise, he said, America could be doomed to one day become more like modern-day Russia, where an autocrat comes to power, restricts the flow of information, and gradually destroys our democracy.
Obama acknowledged that social divisions predate Facebook and Twitter. And efforts to regulate speech will often run afoul of the First Amendment, for which he reiterated his strong support.
But something has to be done, Obama said, citing perhaps the darkest statistic of the entire COVID-19 pandemic: About 1 in 5 Americans refuse to get vaccinated because they believe it would likely harm them. “People are dying because of misinformation,” he said.
That’s partly because of the way platforms are designed to encourage scandal and outrage, he said. That’s partly because they’ve paid too little attention to the quality of the information that’s traveling furthest and fastest. And that is partly because the legislature has not made any sensible regulations.
So what to do? Like most people who venture into these waters, this is where Obama has his biggest problems. Not because his ideas are bad — they’re better than most I’ve heard from Congress — but because they’re so limited. One can imagine all the President’s most practical proposals being implemented, and still wonder how they might reverse a global slide towards autocracy.
Still, he makes some worthy suggestions. Platforms should describe their algorithmic recommendation systems in more detail so we can understand who benefits the most (and who doesn’t). (“If a meatpacking company has a proprietary technique for keeping our hot dogs fresh and clean, they don’t have to tell the world what that technique is,” he said. “But they have to tell the meat inspector.”)
They should add “circuit breakers” that slow the spread of viral posts to give fact-checkers a chance to check them, he argued. They should provide academics with access to their systems to enable more meaningful research. They should fund non-profit newsrooms.
And, says Obama, we should regulate tech platforms. He spoke briefly about at least considering reforming Section 230, the law that exempts tech companies from legal liability in most cases for what their users post online. (I wish he had said more, specifically about how such reforms would pass First Amendment testing.)
Obama also urged platform staff to advocate for such changes — and quit if none are made.
“These companies need to have a North Star other than just making money and promoting partisanship,” he said. “But to solve a problem they helped create, they also stand for something bigger. To the employees of these companies… They have the power to move things in the right direction. You can advocate for change. You can be part of this redesign — or you can vote with your feet and work for the companies that are trying to do the right thing.”
One of the issues I continue to worry about is that disinformation is downstream of certain grim electoral realities. If Republicans don’t have to win a majority of voters through persuasion or compromise and can force their way into office simply by restricting voting rights, why would Steve Bannon and his ilk ever soften the false claims that facilitate this? How can platforms and media outlets respond effectively to a party that does not recognize the legitimacy of fair elections?
When power is not accountable, power is abused. I don’t know how you solve this at platform level.
But platforms could undoubtedly play a dramatic role in enhancing our information ecosystem. They could do this by massively funding non-profit or public media. They could use their COVID response template to promote quality information sources wherever they show news and demote non-partisan outlets. They might slow down viral posts to give the truth a chance to catch up.
You could end Trending Topics. They could encourage positive interactions and community building that transcends political parties. They could form public-private partnerships to disseminate data on state-level actors conducting intelligence operations here and around the world.
Or they could largely ignore these threats and focus on shorter-term goals: the next milestone on the product roadmap, the next quarterly earnings.
If they do, however, they would do well to remember the fate of internet platforms in Russia after autocracy was complete: they disappeared one by one, like lights going out in a power outage.
“We’re not going to get it right right away,” Obama said. “That’s how democracy works. … We continue to perfect our union.”
Of course, it’s one thing to make a speech and another to push those ideas through. Both the platforms and Congress have resisted major change for years, and it’s unclear what levers Obama needs to pull even if he were still president.
But as we move toward the midterm elections, the deliberate use of lies and hoaxes to justify the seizure of power deserves a fresh look. Obama clearly understands what is at stake. If ever there was a moment for change to believe in, it is now.
https://www.theverge.com/2022/4/21/23036525/president-barack-obama-disinformation-ideas Obama’s plans to combat disinformation are better than most