Obama urges tech companies to take action against disinformation | April 29, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 29, 2022

Obama urges tech companies to take action against disinformation

Former president speaks at Stanford about dangers the internet poses to democracy

by Zoe Morgan

Former President Barack Obama came to Stanford University on April 21 to urge tech leaders to take the spirit of innovation that led to Silicon Valley's success and use it to tackle the serious threats to democracy that he sees in the current internet landscape.

In a keynote address hosted by Stanford's Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation, the former president warned that while technological progress has brought about transformative positive changes, it has also caused disinformation to proliferate and poses profound dangers for democracy.

"Like all advances in technology, this progress has had unintended consequences — it sometimes comes at a price," Obama said. "We see that our new information ecosystem is turbocharging some of humanity's worst impulses."

The former president laid out the case for why he believes tech companies must be part of the solution to improving the internet and why greater government oversight is necessary.

Obama began his speech by taking a broad look at what he described as the tumultuous and dangerous moment in history that the world is currently experiencing. From Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine to former President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, Obama said that efforts to subvert democracy are underway around the globe.

A major impediment to turning the tide and strengthening democracy, Obama said, lies in the digital transformation Silicon Valley has led.

"One of the biggest reasons for democracy's weakening is the profound change that's taken place in how we communicate and consume information," he said.

Obama detailed a range of harms that he said have come from the shift to the internet as people's primary source of information, including highly personalized news feeds that reinforce people's existing biases, increased difficulty in differentiating factual information from conspiracy theories, the accelerated decline of traditional media outlets and the ability for autocratic leaders to use social media to spread propaganda and hateful messages.

Emerging tools in artificial intelligence, like "deepfake" technology that can create fabricated videos, will allow disinformation to grow more sophisticated and pose frightening implications for our social order, Obama said.

"Fortunately, I am convinced that it is possible to preserve the transformative power and promise of the open internet, while at least mitigating the worst of its harms," he said.

Making the needed fixes will require those working in the technology sector to get involved and take responsibility for the impact of the platforms they have created, Obama said. Tech companies have to go further to limit and slow the spread of dangerous content online, he said.

Decisions also shouldn't be left solely to private companies, Obama told the crowd, but rather ought to be subject to regulation and public oversight, similar to the safety rules in place for other industries. Greater transparency and scrutiny are particularly needed around the algorithms tech giants use to determine what content users see, he said.

The former president argued that these types of regulations aren't mutually exclusive with innovation and can be crafted in ways that protect a company's sensitive business information.

"If a meat packing company has a proprietary technique to keep our hot dogs fresh and clean, they don't have to reveal to the world what that technique is, (but) they do have to tell the meat inspector," Obama said. "In the same way, tech companies should be able to protect their intellectual property while also following certain safety standards that we as a country, not just them, have agreed are necessary for the greater good."

While pushing for major changes to internet oversight, Obama caveated that the goal shouldn't be to try to remove every last bit of offensive material and said that he knows rules for what content is allowed online will have to involve value judgments.

Free speech is important, Obama told the audience, and a robust, even sometimes antagonistic exchange of ideas creates a better society. At the same time, he pointed out that the first amendment constrains only government action, not the choices of private companies, and that social media sites already make decisions about what content is allowed and how it will appear on their platforms.

In evaluating any proposal to reform social media or the internet more broadly, the former president said his guiding principle will be to consider whether it strengthens or weakens the potential of a healthy and inclusive democracy.

"Whatever changes contribute to that vision, I'm for. Whatever erodes that vision, I'm against," Obama said.

Beyond tech companies and lawmakers, Obama said individuals should also work to broaden the views and perspectives they see and to learn how to better fact-check the information they consume online.

The prospect of creating a better version of the internet is a challenge that everyone should collectively welcome, Obama argued, and one that has the potential to create a better world.

"Now's the time to pick a side," Obama said. "We have a choice right now. Do we allow our democracy to wither or do we make it better? That's the choice we face and it is a choice worth embracing."

pstyle:tagline>Email Staff Writer Zoe Morgan at [email protected]


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2022 at 11:20 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Interesting that a newsworthy event was going on at the same time as this speech and yet PA Weekly has not mentioned it. Perhaps you can blame it on police encryption. Or perhaps it was censorship of things the media doesn't want us to know.

According to Nextdoor, there was a protest on Fabian yesterday as Dr. Cody was getting her Tall Tree Award.

The fact that this protest is not mentioned as a news item causes me to raise some questions.

Is the reason it was not news in the Weekly due to police encryption, or censorship of protest against health restrictions during the pandemic? Either way, this caused problems for people trying to get where they were going and there is a video now on Nextdoor. It seems that the place to turn to news of what is going on is Nextdoor rather than local newspaper.

Additionally, it is interesting that this was happening at the same time Obama is talking about misinformation, dangers of social media for fake news, and similar concerns at Stanford. This has been widely reported. But we have to get our news from Nextdoor.

Does anyone see any irony here?

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2022 at 11:41 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Or it simply may be a reflection of fewer available beat reporters to get there because so many people no longer support great news reporting. Free social media (useless gossip and hearsay) is a poor substitute for well-edited newspapers. Support news agencies or they will die, and we all will be worse off for it. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires the active participation of INFORMED citizens. While I agree that police encryption needs to go, I think your leap may be erroneous and indicative of a different problem.

Re: encryption--Most PAPD officers serve with honor. Nonetheless, WE, the people, are ultimately responsible for oversight of the uniformed (and armed) people we collectively authorize to enforce our laws. Transparency is a necessity. Encryption has to go.

Posted by Barron Parker Too
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2022 at 11:44 am

Barron Parker Too is a registered user.

Obama is doubling down on the attack on free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. The government can't prevent you from expressing ideas but Big Tech can, so we continue to have the government asking Big Tech to violate that fundamental pillar of democracy. And to do it, ironically, in the name of democracy.

Obama then gets more specific and uses the language of identity politics. He says that if speech isn't "inclusive", then it must be prevented. He wants Big Tech to continue to censor speech that could possibly bother someone, because then it wouldn't be "inclusive". This is routinely, and ridiculously, referred to as "hate speech". So, for example, if someone points out the biological fact that men can't be pregnant, this must be censored because it goes against the trans fiction that if a woman (who can get pregnant) says she is a man, then she is a man.

Do we really want to encourage Big Tech to prevent discussion of controversial topics? Do we really want temp workers hired by Big Tech to make decisions on what can be expressed on the internet? To make decisions to strike, demonitize, hide and take down content on issues that need airing? Such as the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis, which they did for a year. Do we really believe that democracy will be destroyed if controversial views are discussed, because people are too stupid to ultimately ferret out truth from fiction, and an elite class is necessary to control speech?

Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2022 at 5:43 pm

What Will They Do Next is a registered user.

Social media is controlled and run by liberals and progressives as is most media in general. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and others want to suppress the right to free speech by people who don't share those values. Obama knows this and supports their actions covertly. He can try to put a benevolent spin on it by claiming we should broaden the views and perspectives of everyone, but he is clearly a hypocrite. So when he says there is a challenge to democracy he means that conservative voices challenging or disagreeing with the liberal/progressive narrative should not be heard because after all, they alone represent democracy. He's not fooling anyone.

Why do you think the executives at Twitter are in panic mode following a bid by Elon Musk to purchase the company and protect the free speech of everyone who uses the platform? The threat of losing their ability to censor or ban anyone who disagrees with their politics and narrative scares them to death.

Posted by Banes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2022 at 8:47 pm

Banes is a registered user.

Amen Baron Parker too!
Already too much Censorship by the CA government agencies, & mayors (Libby Shaff Oakland, & London breed San Francisco mayors in particular), In the name of protecting individuals who commit crimes, including ethnicity & race related, gang challenges & initiation rites, side shows, random gun shots on the freeways, People stealing fire trucks from Oakland fire station 23 on Independence day 2019, and then the story is censored by the Oakland mayor stating all reporters must go thru the police dept.? Really? Since when is the police department a journalist or reporter ? A basic threat to any reporter that they will be arrested for reporting news & safety events. We never hear about any of these stories in the news or the consequences of which there are none. All in the name of not exploiting some special interest group. Crime is acceptable in the name of criminals rights being a priority.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2022 at 9:22 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Free speech is under attack. Free speech is not hate speech, it is different opinions being held and aired in a public forum.

Silencing free speech is dangerous! Yes dangerous and Orwellian.

Read 1984. Never did I think we would be approaching thought police and Big Brother.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 23, 2022 at 9:48 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Re "free speech is under attack," what about the increase paid provocateurs who make many millions of dollars with their lies Alex Jones who called Sandy Hook a lie and incited his followers to harass the grieving parents, forcing one of them to have to move 10 times??

Now that he's been sued for libel and defamation, he's declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying damages AND to protect his assets so he can keep on spewing hate and lies.

Or the Verity Project that made all those deceptive videos entrapping people to say what they wanted with the sole purpose of getting Planned Parenthood defunded?

It's a slippery slope but when you have a President and his staff defending what they admit are "alternative facts" aka lies, we're going down that slope into a dangerous territory of hate, lies, division and partisanship because there's lots of money to be made there.

Posted by Petra Karenter
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 25, 2022 at 8:05 am

Petra Karenter is a registered user.

Interesting comments about misinformation by President Obama. Especially in light of the fact that he won the 2010 “Politifact Lie of the Year” for his oft-repeated statement:

“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

Posted by John
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 25, 2022 at 9:33 am

John is a registered user.

Control the information, control the people. I don’t think anyone, regardless of your politics, has any illusions about the MSM and truthfulness. There’s a reason ABC killed their Jeffrey Epstein story 3 years before his arrest. There’s a reason the MSM reports on Ghislane Maxwell’s conviction as a sex trafficker but doesn’t care who her customers were. Lots of others are reporting them, but that’s just who Obama wants shut down.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2022 at 11:25 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Time to chime in again.

MSM gets too much say in what we see, what we are not able to see, and most importantly what we think.

Example. Trump stumbles as president at a venue giving a speech. Big news, doctors concern about his health, blah blah blah. Biden trips on the steps of AF1, and it is practically dismissed. Trump family members have all their business dealings discussed by commentators. Biden's son's dealings in Ukraine and his laptop are not mentioned. Pence and Harris, similar situations.

The truth is that all MSM are doing now is a ratings battle and they are trying to manipulate what the public think. Getting independent facts are almost impossible. We could be in the midst of another Watergate, but our journalists are worrying more about getting a story, any story, out there quicker than their competitors. They are trying to make any minor news story sensational if it suits them or hide it if it doesn't.

We are in the immediate information age, but we are being manipulated by high tech. We are no longer the public, but consumers of information that they, the chiefs, want us to have. We are being preyed on and we don't even know it.

Posted by Avery Stone
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2022 at 9:49 am

Avery Stone is a registered user.

Obama could have easily addressed this issue when he was president. Instead he waited until six years later.

His address was ostensible Democratic campaigning for the upcoming 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 29, 2022 at 9:08 am

Online Name is a registered user.

When Obama was in office, he kept singing Kumbaya because he believed in bipartisanship and ignored all the statements by the GOP that their main goal was to say no to everything and anything he proposed. They even opposed hand-washing and eating vegetables BECAUSE he suggested it.

Better late than never.

Re disinformation, did you all miss the foreign troll farms and bots on social media?? It's a big global industry.

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