Back in 2008, Barack Obama used the internet and social media to win the White House. He held the hug when he got there.
Now he fears that the internet and social media have helped create "the greatest threat to our democracy".
Obama has been saying one version of this for four years – since he left the White House – but his words are becoming clearer. He's clearly sounding the alarm, but it's not exactly clear what to do about it.
His most recent criticism can be found in a new interview between Obama and Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, and before we go any further, let us put it in full context: Obama discussed a media landscape made not only by Facebook but also by Fox News and which enables Americans to choose their own distorted reality. That means we no longer have any common facts.
This assessment is now conventional wisdom among many critics of the TV and Internet ecosystem. There is almost no practical, constructive argument as to how we should respond to this problem. Obama doesn't offer one in his interview either.
And again it is wrong to say that Obama is putting the problems of our broken information landscape at the feet of Facebook or some other specific technology company. But he's now locking himself into her in a way that he didn't before leaving the White House.
Obama: Now you have a situation where much of the country really believes the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring … I spoke to a volunteer who went door-to-door in Philadelphia on the low-income American communities and got questions about QAnon conspiracy theories.
Goldberg: Does this new malicious information architecture bend the moral arc away from justice?
Obama: I think it is the greatest threat to our democracy.
Later in the interview, Obama makes it clear that a lot of his concern is specifically about the Internet – which he also clearly states that it doesn't "go away" – and the major platforms that sort and distribute most of the Internet for most people: :
Obama: I don't hold the tech companies completely responsible as this is older than social media. It was already there. But social media charged it. I know most of these people. I talked to them about it. The extent to which these companies insist that they look more like a telephone company than the Atlantic I don't think is tenable. They make editorial decisions, regardless of whether they buried them in algorithms or not. After the first change, private companies don't have to provide a platform for a view, which is there. Ultimately, we need to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this because it will get worse. If you can commit wacky lies and conspiracy theories using just text, imagine what you can do in making it seem like you or I are saying something on video. We're pretty close to that now …
Goldberg: It's that famous Steve Bannon strategy: flood the zone with shit.
Obama: If we are unable to distinguish what is true and what is false, the marketplace of ideas, by definition, does not work. And by definition, our democracy doesn't work. We are entering an epistemological crisis.
Obama's criticism of Fox News and the Rupert Murdoch Empire dates back to his time in the White House. It went on while he was there.
During his eight-year tenure, however, Obama was very welcome in the tech industry, and vice versa: Obama provided the White House with Silicon Valley veterans, and White House veterans later landed important jobs in Silicon Valley.
Google executives in particular, starting with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, had frequent meetings with White House staff. Towards the end of Obama's presidency, the Wall Street Journal reported that professional regulators wanted to prosecute antitrust allegations against Google but were overridden by political officials.
Obama certainly understood the power of social media that helped him take office. In the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama was reportedly obsessed with a BuzzFeed story about Macedonian teenagers flooding Facebook with fake news.
But it was not until after the election that Obama spoke in public about "active misinformation" on Facebook and on television. Days later, he pulled Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg aside to plead privately to "take the threat of false news and political disinformation seriously".
And while Obama was careful to hold back during most of the Trump era, he often made efforts to articulate his criticism of social media when he came up:
"I think the big platforms – Google and Facebook are the most obvious, Twitter and others are part of that ecosystem – need to talk about their business model to realize that they are both a public good and a commercial company," he said on an MIT event in 2018. " We need to have a serious conversation about what the business models, algorithms, and mechanisms are that allow us to have more of a common conversation. And this can't just be a commercial conversation. "
Obama called for a "serious talk" about our information dystopia two years ago. Now he is calling for "a combination of government regulations and corporate practices" to deal with it.
It's hard to be optimistic that we'll get there. It's hard to see the federal government seriously regulating big tech as Democrats and Republicans haven't exchanged facts about the problem. In fact, Republicans have chosen a QAnon sponsor for Congress. And big tech is incapable of regulating itself – it would be better if the government regulate big tech. And it would be surprising if Joe Biden – who had little to say about technology during his presidential campaign – and Kamala Harris – a longtime Silicon Valley ally – made this a focus of a pandemic presidency.
A modest proposal: Barack Obama is still working on the second volume of his memoir. This seems to be an issue to focus on afterwards.
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