'Humanity's worst impulses': Obama says online disinformation puts democracy at risk

Ella Lee

Former President Barack Obama warned Thursday that "humanity's worst impulses" are inflamed by online disinformation, which he believes is fueled by unchecked technology companies.

In an hourlong speech at Stanford University, Obama said "people are dying" and democracies eroding because of misinformation and disinformation on social media, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin's rise and unnecessary COVID-19 deaths as prominent examples of the threat.

The former president called on tech groups to find a "north star" and "redesign" themselves to focus less on "making money and increasing partisanship" and more on solving the information crisis he said they helped create. 

“Do we allow our democracy to wither, or do we make it better?” Obama asked. “That is the choice.”

Fact check:COVID-19, election misinformation dominated social media in 2021

Obama's speech is his latest in a string of talks about online disinformation, an issue he's painted as increasingly dire.

Earlier this month, he discussed misinformation and disinformation in a live conversation with The Atlantic at the University of Chicago, where he described the former as information that's simply wrong and the latter as a "systematic effort to either promote false information, to suppress true information, for the purpose of political gain, financial gain, enhancing power, suppressing others, targeting those you don’t like."

"I think it’s entirely different from information that is inconvenient," he said. 

In his Thursday speech, Obama said he did not realize during his presidency "just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself."

He noted Putin and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon as examples of effective disinformers, adding that people don't necessarily have to believe false information for it to weaken democratic institutions.

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

He described much of social media as a "constant feed of content, where useful, factual information and happy diversions flow alongside lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, racist tracts and misogynist screeds."

Wartime disinformation:Russia is turning to its old disinformation playbook in Ukraine. Is the world able to stop it?

Without a solution, Obama's predictions for the future of democracy were grim: "If we do nothing, I'm convinced the trends we're seeing will get worse."

But the former president suggested there's still much that can be done.

He called on tech companies to increase transparency abouttheir algorithms and suggested they add "circuit breakers" that slow the virality of online posts so fact-checkers have more time to review them. He also said academics should have access to the companies' systems to improve their research and that the government should expand its regulation of tech platforms.

Better regulations should start with reform of Section 230, the law that says tech companies aren't responsible for what their users post online in most cases, he suggested.

"Without some standards, the implications of this technology for our elections, for our legal system, for our democracy, for rules of evidence, for our entire social order, are frightening and profound," he said.