Obama: Tech Firms Are 'Turbo-Charging Humanity's Worst Impulses'

He says changes need to be made to protect democracy
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 22, 2022 6:39 AM CDT
Obama: Tech Firms Are 'Turbo-Charging Humanity's Worst Impulses'
Barack Obama speaks during the Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm symposium hosted by the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Thursday, April 21, 2022.   (Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

(Newser) – Barack Obama acknowledged in a speech Thursday that he might never have become president without the efforts of volunteers who organized on "websites like MySpace, Meetup, and Facebook"—but he warned that tech companies are failing to address the darker side of social media. In a keynote speech at Stanford University, Obama said technology is "turbo-charging some of humanity’s worst impulses" and major companies need to make changes to stop the "weakening of democratic institutions around the world," the Hill reports. The former president gave the examples of misinformation about COVID-19, the 2020 election, and Russian disinformation before the invasion of Ukraine.

People like Vladimir Putin, "and Steve Bannon for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions," Obama said. "You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing, that citizens no longer know what to believe." He said his administration had been aware of Russian disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 election, but admitted that he had failed to realize "just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories," the Guardian reports.

"Social media is a tool. At the end of the day, tools don’t control us, we control them," Obama said, setting out several proposals to make tech companies more accountable. Like Donald Trump, he believes it could be time to reform Section 230, which shields tech firms from liability for content posted on the platforms. Obama also said tech firms' algorithms should be subject to "public oversight and regulation" and platforms should have "circuit breakers" to ensure viral posts are swiftly fact-checked, the Verge reports. (Read more Barack Obama stories.)

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