Former President Barack Obama urged greater transparency and regulatory oversight of social-media companies Thursday, warning that disinformation is eating away at democracy.
Speaking at a Stanford University event in Palo Alto, Calif. — virtually next door to tech giants such as Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc.
and YouTube parent Alphabet Inc.
— the former president said that “If we do nothing, I’m convinced the trends we’re seeing will get worse.”
Calling disinformation “a threat to our democracy,” Obama said social media is being used to sow division and undermine the country.
““People are dying because of misinformation.””
— Barack Obama
“People like 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 during an hourlong speech. “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.”
“Once they lose trust in their leaders, mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, the possibility of truth — the game’s won,” he said.
Obama said he regretted not doing enough to fight misinformation when he was president, citing “my failure to fully appreciate at the time, just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite spending years being a target of disinformation myself.”
While he said social media is not, by itself, the cause, he blamed tech platforms for “turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses.”
“But not all problems we’re seeing now are an inevitable byproduct of this new technology,” he said. “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. Decisions that intentionally or not have made democracies more vulnerable.”
Obama threw his support behind revamping Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies from liability for content that users post on their sites, and called for greater regulatory oversight.
He also urged tech companies to live up to their social responsibility.
“These companies need to have some other North Star than just making money and increasing profit shares,” Obama said. “Fix the problem that in part they helped create, but also to stand for something bigger.”