Social media ‘well designed’ to destroy democracies, says Obama

Platforms are built with wrong incentives that end up ‘turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses,’ says former president

Vishwam Sankaran
Friday 22 April 2022 13:49
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Barack Obama delivers the keynote speech about disinformation and challenges to democracy in the digital information realm

Former US president Barack Obama has said social media companies are “well designed” to weaken democracies, adding that there is a need for accountability and democratic oversight of these platforms.

Speaking at an event co-hosted by Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation on Thursday, Mr Obama said the world was at “another tumultuous, dangerous moment in history”.

The former US president pointed fingers at the Kremlin, accusing Russia of using US-based social media platforms to spread misinformation in the lead up to the country’s 2016 elections.

“People like Putin, and Steve Bannon for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe in order to weaken democratic institutions,” Mr Obama said during his hour-long keynote address.

“You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorising, that citizens no longer know what to believe,” he said.

He accused social media platforms of being designed with all the wrong incentives in place for their users that end up “turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses”.

The 44th US president said the “very design” of these platforms was tilting users in the “wrong direction”, adding that it may not be too late to make different choices.

“Not all problems we are seeing now are an inevitable byproduct of this new technology. They’re also the result of very specific choices made by the companies that have come to dominate the internet, generally, and social media platforms in particular,” he said.

“Solving the disinformation problem won’t cure all that ails our democracies or tears at the fabric of our world. But it can help rebuild the trust and solidarity needed to make democracy stronger,” Mr Obama tweeted.

While he did not delve into specific policy changes that could be a solution to the problems caused by these platforms, Mr Obama said regulatory interventions such as the European Union’s Digital Markets Act are a path forward.

He also mentioned the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act — bipartisan legislation that would require social media platforms to open up their data to researchers outside these companies.

“I believe we should use every tool at our disposal to secure our greatest gift – a government of, by, and for the people – for generations to come,” he said.

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