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'Turbocharging' our worst impulses: Obama speaks at Stanford about dangers the internet poses to democracy

Former president urges tech companies to take action against disinformation, argues for more government regulation

Former President Barack Obama delivers the keynote address during a symposium titled "Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm" at Stanford University on April 21, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Former President Barack Obama came to Stanford University on Thursday 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 an April 21 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.

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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.

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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.

'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.'

-Barack Obama, former U.S. president

"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 only constrains 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.

Attendees listen to former President Barack Obama deliver the keynote address during a symposium titled "Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm" at Stanford University on April 21, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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."

Watch the full keynote address:

Former President Barack Obama delivers the keynote address during a symposium titled "Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm," at Stanford University on April 21, 2022.

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'Turbocharging' our worst impulses: Obama speaks at Stanford about dangers the internet poses to democracy

Former president urges tech companies to take action against disinformation, argues for more government regulation

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Sun, Apr 24, 2022, 9:54 am

Former President Barack Obama came to Stanford University on Thursday 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 an April 21 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 only constrains 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."

Watch the full keynote address:

Comments

MichaelB
Registered user
Pleasanton Meadows
on Apr 24, 2022 at 11:17 am
MichaelB, Pleasanton Meadows
Registered user
on Apr 24, 2022 at 11:17 am

"In an April 21 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."

All this from the same guy who repeatedly and erroneously claimed "if you like your health care plan/doctor, you can keep it". "Disinformation" is whatever so called progressives want it to be to silence any opposition to their "I know what is best for you" agenda getting passed. Well, they don't know what is best. We are not "better off" with inflation, rising energy prices, obedience to international bureaucrats, open borders, people being paid not to work, favoring criminals over victims, referring to the nation as "systemically racist", etc.

There is a "profound danger" - to the political left. Voters are waking up to their failed policies.


Pleasanton Parent
Registered user
Pleasanton Meadows
on Apr 24, 2022 at 11:58 am
Pleasanton Parent, Pleasanton Meadows
Registered user
on Apr 24, 2022 at 11:58 am

He is correct that this is a real problem, regardless of position, the private moderation and algorithms of “what I like” creates a false sense of news.

Pair that with the sensationalism of stories being projected as the norm and you have the polarized populations we have today.

I laugh at every person showing me video evidence and a simple, “do you really think someone was “randomly” just taping at that moment “ question leaves a dumbfounded look.

Yes, there have been great instances of social media casting a light on injustices, but I teach my kids it’s all fake entertainment at best.

Let’s get back to critical thinking , not made for my position content


Swagu
Registered user
Bridle Creek
on Apr 24, 2022 at 3:16 pm
Swagu, Bridle Creek
Registered user
on Apr 24, 2022 at 3:16 pm

Big tech is agenda fueled and pro censorship. They allow Taliban leaders but ban anyone who says 'mean words' such as the Babylon Bee CEO.

They even control the app market. "Create your own software if you don't like twitter" > "Oops apple app store and google play store bans the app. Tough luck!


Michael Austin
Registered user
Pleasanton Meadows
on Apr 25, 2022 at 11:56 am
Michael Austin , Pleasanton Meadows
Registered user
on Apr 25, 2022 at 11:56 am

Well, Obama was speaking to the democratic party, how dangerous they are with their disinformation. There is Maxine Waters, Eric Swalwell, and senators Nadler, and Schiff with their collusion rhetoric, that ROC representative from New York, Pelosi San Francisco, others too numerous to list. Swalwell with his irrefutable evidence. Why do people vote for these representatives?


Jake Waters
Registered user
Birdland
on Apr 25, 2022 at 5:03 pm
Jake Waters, Birdland
Registered user
on Apr 25, 2022 at 5:03 pm

This informational article detailing Obama’s feelings is not provided by Pleasanton Weekly without suspect. The Left/neo-liberal, pro Democratic Party that the PW supports should not go unnoticed. Interesting that the people that most protest too much are the ones that are seriously spreading misinformation, if not disinformation. I love that the Left is imploding over Elon Musk purchasing Twitter today. A social Media product that censors Americans will finally be liberated by an actual Libertarian.

Cracks are forming in the elites homes all over the world. What’s a Marxist to do? LOL


Michael Austin
Registered user
Pleasanton Meadows
on Apr 26, 2022 at 7:31 am
Michael Austin , Pleasanton Meadows
Registered user
on Apr 26, 2022 at 7:31 am

Donald Trump drove the democrats stark raving mad.


KathleenRuegsegger
Registered user
Vintage Hills
on Apr 26, 2022 at 9:18 am
KathleenRuegsegger, Vintage Hills
Registered user
on Apr 26, 2022 at 9:18 am

What everyone misses is that there are no angels (or very few) on either side of the aisle.


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