Former President Barack Obama believes that a mix of regulation and industry standards are needed to combat the attraction of dangerous misinformation on the internet.
Speaking Wednesday at an event hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic entitled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy,” Obama invoked Abraham Lincoln and the North Star when discussing the role of the media and Big Tech in curbing what he described as “grievance, anger-based journalism.”
“I do think that there is a demand for crazy on the internet that we have to grapple with,” Obama said.
And according to him, we need a system that encourages humanity’s “better angels” to do that.
“To quote Lincoln, ‘You can either encourage the better angels of folks’s nature, or their worst,” Obama said. “And democracy is premised on the idea that we can come up with processes, including how we share information and argue about information that encourages our better angels. And I think that’s possible.”
Obama stated that he believes “we underestimate the degree of pliability in our opinions, in our views,” and suggested that many may simply need a change in their information “diet” to let those better angels blossom.
“There was just recently a report that confirms what I feel and what I have seen … they paid a pretty large cohort of Fox News watchers to watch CNN for a certain period of time — and these are very hardcore Conservatives, not Biden voters, not central swing voters — these were folks who watch Hannity and Tucker Carlson and so forth,” Obama recalled. “After a relatively short period of time, what it showed was that their views on issues — controversial issues like immigration reform or police or vaccinations — had changed by five, eight, ten percent, just simply by changing their diet. It hadn’t turned them into Liberals. It didn’t make them want to vote for Joe Biden. They had just had access to a different set of information.”
Obama noted that, in an age of international online content, it is difficult to maintain the kinds of reporting standards in media that were practiced following World War II, and acknowledged that there’s “no such thing as perfect objectivity,” but stressed the new product designs have defined a new media ecosystem that can be nothing short of fatal.
“What you now have are these products designs that are … in a non-transparent way that we don’t have much insight to, a series of editorial choices are essentially being made that undermine our democracy and oftentimes, when combined with any sort of ethno-nationalism or misogyny or racism, can be fatal,” Obama said. “And that is the media ecosystem that we are now occupying.”
But Obama remains optimistic that we will, as a society, find our “North Star.”
“The good news is, I actually think that it is — at every juncture, every time we’ve had a new media, we’ve had this kind of churn — and then we’ve come up with rules to try to figure out how do we fix it,” Obama said. “But in order to fix it, we are going to have to have at least as consensus about what’s our North Star. What is the thing — the guiding principle — around which we fix it. My concern is right now that at least a portion of the country either isn’t interested in fixing it or disagrees with what I would think our North Star should be, which is, ‘do we have a free, self-governing society based on democratic principles?'”
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