Former President Barack Obama is jumping into the fight against misinformation with urgency, catching a years-long private fascination in the open as he makes the issue a key pillar of his post-presidency.
More than a decade after the false and infamous “birther” conspiracy theory was promulgated by his political opponents, including then-private citizen Donald Trump, Obama hopes his personal experience with disinformation and knowledge of its ramifications can help determine the best way to regulate social media platforms that promulgate misinformation and find ways to respond to what he calls the “internet lunatic demand” that has filled a void as local media have decreases.
Obama’s efforts have been extensive, say the former president’s confidants and outside advisers with experience in the tech industry, with Obama arranging meetings and conversations with academics, activists, researchers, tech industry, media executives, former government officials and former regulators. People who have met the former president describe him as gripped by the issue, showing up to meetings with handwritten notes and questions and often referring to his reading on the subject, including reports from the RAND Corporation and the Aspen Institute, and a partisan media research study by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla.
Eric Schultz, an adviser to Obama, said the former president sees misinformation as a “crossing line for all the challenges we face right now,” including the pandemic, climate change and injustice. racial. And for Obama, Schultz added, “the arc of this issue also follows the arc of his public life” – while social media helped get Obama elected in 2008, misinformation that has spread across different platforms also accelerated during his tenure.
Obama made that goal public on Wednesday when he headlined a conversation about misinformation at a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic magazine. He will elaborate on the subject later in the month when he delivers a keynote address at a conference at Stanford University.
“It is difficult for me to see how we will win the ideas competition if, in fact, we are not able to agree on a basis of acts which allows the market of ideas to function,” said Obama said Wednesday, lamenting that attendees had access to all the information they wanted on their phones, there were still large swathes of Americans who believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and the vaccine against the coronavirus was not something they needed.
Obama admitted that he “struggled with a lot of things” during his presidency, including “the degree to which information, disinformation was weaponized”. But remembering his tenure, he said he and his team “underestimated how democracies were as vulnerable to (misinformation) as they were, including our own.” On unsubstantiated questions about his place of birth, he said: “It was not an example of misinformed people. There was an agenda behind this promotion which was clearly a false fact.
Obama told the hearing Wednesday that he could “draw a direct line” between his time on the campaign trail and the proliferation of lies about his birthplace and the lie that his iconic health care law established ” death signs” for older Americans, as Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin put it in 2008.
“There was what has been called the decadence of truth. There has been an erosion of what was considered acceptable to say in the press, period. It’s all pre-social media,” he said. “And then when social media comes in, I think you’ve seen it spread and accelerate. … I think it’s actually in my second term that you start to see only bad information, but you also start to see an acceleration of misinformation.
“And in 2016, that’s when, well, we know what happened,” Obama said, trailing off, acknowledging what everyone in the room knew – the same man who pushed the birth conspiracy theory was elected as his successor.
Obama, now a 60-year-old gray-haired former politician, has fully embraced the technological intricacies of the disinformation issue, according to an outside adviser who has worked in the tech industry, mostly because the former president is ” naturally kind of geeky.
“It’s not like it’s a new genre, which you’ll never see on my lawn or anything,” the adviser told CNN. “He understands this world.”
The adviser said Obama had more time to focus on the matter because “now he has the ability to speak to a range of experts without it being an official government function”, and so he called a range of people to look at the problem. .
And it gave him, this person said, not only a better understanding of how misinformation has personally affected his life and career, but also a deep concern that the spread of misinformation will lead to a form of “political nihilism”, where many Americans don’t know what to believe and just check out politics all together.
“This is the real enemy and the real environment that misinformation creates and allows autocracy to flourish,” the outside adviser said. “Birtherism is obviously part of that story, but the stakes have, in some ways, changed so much since then that it’s now part of the context of democracy itself.”
In retrospect, “birtherism,” or the belief that Obama was not born in Hawaii, was a warning of what was to come, the dark, dystopian path that American political discourse was about to take.
The “birtherism” and the “big lie” undermining the 2020 election are no different at all. Both are baseless, viral conspiracy theories with damaging undertones championed by Trump to engage an enthusiastic base and sow doubt in the wider populace.
The birth conspiracy theory first surfaced in the first decade of the century – Obama said it was put forward as early as his Illinois Senate race. Its precise genesis is unclear and disputed.
By 2011, however, Trump had become a champion of the birther movement, launching a campaign to have Obama release his detailed birth certificate.
“He has no birth certificate. He might have one, but there’s something about it, maybe the religion, maybe he says he’s a Muslim,” Trump told Fox in 2011.
Obama had a detailed birth certificate and the White House released it. Obama then roasted Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that year.
Lee Foster, an expert in tracking misinformation and senior vice president of the Alethea Group, told CNN that the birth conspiracy theory was “just a precursor to the barrage of lies we face in the environment. current politics.
Foster, who has been involved in exposing foreign disinformation campaigns targeting the United States via social media, said it’s important to remember it goes beyond the internet.
“Big Tech plays a role in this, but so do our media institutions, our political parties, and frankly, all of us. It requires all of us to tackle each other,” he said.
Despite Obama’s keen interest, answers about how best to counter misinformation have proven more elusive.
During his remarks on Wednesday, Obama alluded to the need for transparency about the social media algorithms that determine what people see in their online feeds and the issue of anonymity on social media sites.
He also expressed support for tougher regulations on social media companies. He said that while he was not in favor of the “complete elimination” of Section 230, a rule that protects the ability of companies to moderate their site content as they see fit, he wondered whether the protections were fair for “paid advertising that targets certain groups”. . … It can be really damaging.
And Obama has responded somewhat mockingly to protests from social media companies, which say their algorithms and product designs contain proprietary information that cannot be shown to regulators or the public.
“I don’t know exactly how meat inspections are done. And if someone says we have a patented technique to keep our meat clean, that’s fine, discuss it with the meat inspector,” he said sarcastically. “This idea that we have to preserve this because somehow we have proprietary interests is wrong.”