Obama says spread of conspiracy theories are ‘single biggest threat to democracy’

Social media companies are 'making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not’, the former president said

Adam Smith
Thursday 19 November 2020 03:41 GMT
Barack Obama says it will take 'more than one election to reverse US division'
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Barack Obama has said that social media companies are making “editorial choices” and that governments need to find adequate regulation to address how they spread “crazy lies and conspiracy theories.”

The former president commented on the debate, which has been a focus for the Trump administration both before and during the pandemic, in an interview with The Atlantic.

Mr Obama continued to say that while he did not “hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media”, that these large corporations have “turbocharged” the ability to spread conspiracy theories.

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis” he continued.

Mr Trump, the former present said, was an “accelerant” of this issue. Research has shown that Donald Trump is the biggest single source of coronavirus misinformation, sharing “miracle cures about anti-malarial drugs and disinfectant” on his Twitter account, which is not acted on in the same way as normal users because of its “newsworthiness”.

“The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable," Mr Obama said.

The notion that social media companies are similar to phone companies was one made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said that Facebook is "somewhere in between" a newspaper and a telecom company with regards to Section 230 reform. This is with regards to the fact that they both morderate content, and also passively carry messages.

In May 2020, Twitter censured one of president Trump’s tweets that the social media platform said "glorified violence"; in response, Mr Trump shortly after signed an executive order that would reform Section 230 - American legislation which protects websites from being legally liable for content posted on their platform. 

This legislation protects large technology companies like Facebook and Twitter, comment sections of newspapers, and any website – large or small - in the United States.

“Under the law, bloggers are not liable for comments left by readers, the work of guest bloggers, tips sent via email, or information received through RSS feeds. This legal protection can still hold even if a blogger is aware of the objectionable content or makes editorial judgments” the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains.

Should Section 230 be reformed, social media companies would be legally liable for content on their platforms, meaning they would have to require greater moderation.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this, because it’s going to get worse,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr Obama also expressed concerns for deepfakes - a video where artificial intelligence has been used to make a person appear to say something they have not – because of their potential to spread misinformation.

Deepfakes have been called the most potentially dangerous crime, and although the 2020 election was not influenced by deepfakes experts say the threat remains for future events.

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