Former President Obama on Democracy and Disinformation

From CNN’s Reliable Sources by Brian Stelter:

Obama on democracy and disinfo

Former President Barack Obama set the table for a conference titled Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy by underscoring just how difficult and interconnected the disinfo challenges are.

In an hour-plus-long conversation with The Atlantic’s EIC Jeffrey Goldberg on Wednesday evening, Obama said his “guiding principle” is: “Does this make our democracy stronger or weaker?” And he identified many forces making it weaker. Among them: The loss of local journalism; “the nationalization of a grievance, anger-based journalism;” and the growth of social media products that monetize “anger, resentment, conflict, division.” Then, on top of all that, are disinformation artists who spread lies for propaganda and profit. The “birther” lie is quaint in comparison to the B.S. that gets manufactured nowadays.

During his time in office, Obama said, “we saw” the disinformation threat, “but I think I underestimated the degree to which democracies were as vulnerable to it as they were, including ours.”

One of his examples was Donald Trump‘s Big Lie: Despite smartphones in almost every pocket and free-flowing access to info in the US, “roughly 40% of the country appears convinced that the current president was elected fraudulently,” he said, making no attempt to hide his dismay.

He discussed both the supply and demand sides of disinfo and said “I do think there’s a demand for ‘crazy’ on the internet that we need to grapple with.”

Obama also said America’s media structures are exacerbating the divisions in society, but also described himself as “close to a free speech absolutist,” urging citizens to meet bad ideas with better ideas. The Chicago Tribune has a recap of the event here.

“Young people are going to have to help us reinvent — for a primarily virtual, social media space — the same kinds of rules, norms, practices, processes that existed before,” Obama said. “I think that’s going to take a while.” (What an understatement!)\

Further notes and quotes

— CNN’s Dan Merica wrote about Obama’s newsy remarks regarding the war in Ukraine. Obama said the conflict is a “bracing reminder for democracies that had gotten flabby and confused and feckless around the stakes of things that we tended to take for granted…”

— What’s happening to Ukraine “is not isolated,” Obama said. “What we’re seeing is a reversion back to old ways of thinking about power and place and identity…”

— During the session, Goldberg brought up Obama’s memoir and slyly asked “When is volume two coming?” Obama gave a dramatic pause and said “let’s move on…”

— Obama gave a shoutout to McKay Coppinsreporting in The Atlantic about Alden Global Capital “scooping up and destroying newspapers…”

Maria Ressa kickstarted the conference on Wednesday afternoon. Here is The Atlantic’s adaptation of her remarks in the form of a column…

— Related: Check out Ressa’s new interview with Julia Angwin for NiemanLab…

The conference will be live-streamed on Thursday and Friday. I will be on a panel around noon CT Thursday, alongside Stephen Hayes and Lauren Williams, moderated by Jim Rutenberg

After the session, a tech exec told me they were heartened by Obama’s remarks, because the former president didn’t offer any Ah-ha answers to intractable challenges. It was a twist on the old Us Weekly feature “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” Obama is wrestling with these issues just like the rest of us. He is giving a keynote at a Stanford University forum on disinformation on April 21, so maybe he’ll have more to share by then…

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