Obama accuses social media of ‘supercharging some of humanity’s worst impulses’

Former President Barack Obama said the way voters consume and share information weakens democracies around the world and blamed the current information ecosystem powered by social media companies for “turbocharging some of the humanity’s worst impulses”.

“One of the main reasons for the weakening of democracies is the profound change that has taken place in the way we communicate and consume information,” Obama said.

Speaking at Stanford University on Thursday, Obama said today’s news ecosystem is deepening existing racial and religious divides, though he added that not all of modernity’s problems are an understatement. product of advanced technology.

“Some of the current challenges we face are inherent in a fully connected world,” Obama said. “They are also the result of very specific choices made by companies that have come to dominate the internet in general, and social media platforms in particular.”

Obama said decisions by social media companies about moderating content and using algorithms to rank posts “have made democracies more vulnerable.”

The former president said he understands social media companies need to make money, but added that it’s a concern that “incendiary and polarizing content attracts and engages”.

Internal documents leaked by Facebook’s parent company Meta last year showed that the platform’s researchers were aware of their algorithms. pushed users to posts with misinformation.

Facebook researchers have long known that bad actors game the system and manipulate the platform’s algorithms. According to a December 2019 note, Facebook researchers noted that users were “posting increasingly outrageous things to get comments and reactions that our algorithms interpret as signs that we should let things get ugly.” viral”.

The former president said that for many Americans, it’s impossible to tell the difference between a peer-reviewed article by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a miracle cure offered by a “huckster”.

Obama said the coronavirus pandemic is a good example of how “the very design of these platforms seems to be tipping us in the wrong direction.”

“Despite the fact that we have now essentially clinically tested the vaccine on billions of people around the world, approximately one in five Americans are still willing to put themselves and their families at risk rather than get vaccinated. people are dying because of misinformation,” Obama said.

He has highlighted the threat of misinformation and misinformation in recent public appearances, but on Thursday took issue with what he characterized as comprehensively how misinformation affects democracies abroad and in the United States.

He said without certain standards and safeguards provided by regulators, the consequences for society are “frightening”. While Obama challenged social media companies to be part of the solution, he noted that societal divisions around race, culture and religion were not created by companies like Facebook. and Twitter.

There may be “design flaws” and “bugs” in the software, but he added that he is “convinced that it is possible to preserve the transformative power and promise of an open Internet while mitigating at least the worst of its misdeeds”.

Obama himself was the subject of a disinformation campaign during his presidency when right-wing white nationalists claimed he was not born in America. The White House finally published a copy of his birth certificate to silence false rumours.

In recent months, Obama has met with academics, researchers, former regulators and industry leaders to discuss the threat of misinformation. He blamed social media platforms for bringing up lies as much as truths.

At a conference earlier this month hosted by the University of Chicago and The Atlantic, Obama said society needs to find a balance between social media platforms making money and engaging in harmful practices.

He repeated that message on Thursday. Obama said that while he thinks social media companies are sincere about limiting the dangers of their product, they still have a financial incentive to keep users engaged.

“These companies are still too cautious about exactly how their standards work or how their engagement ranking systems influence what goes viral and what doesn’t,” Obama said.

He said decisions that affect billions of users shouldn’t be left to big social media platforms alone and require regulatory oversight. Social media companies have been able to avoid scrutiny, at least in part, because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

It is the law that ensures that social media companies are not held responsible for messages posted on their platforms by users and third parties. Washington DC lawmakers have been unable to find a way to reform the law despite the introduction of several invoices by bipartisan lawmakers last year.

Obama said he wasn’t convinced Section 230 should be repealed entirely, but called for reforms to the law that take into account advances in technology and changes in social media platforms.

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