Obama rallies against disinformation
The former president knows we need a system-wide approach. But where to start?
A former president of the United States has their pick of big problems to tackle once they leave office. Jimmy Carter worked on housing. Bill Clinton spent much of his time working to fight HIV and AIDS. Barack Obama, who has been out of office for six years, has so far led a fairly quiet post-presidency. But in recent weeks, he has begun drawing attention to an issue that advisers say has become increasingly important to him: disinformation, and the broader problems with our fractured information ecosystem.
In the months after President Donald Trump was dislodged from office, what could feel at times like like an all-consuming focus on disinformation in the tech and political press began to fade into the background. The shift is understandable: Trump had been the most prominent spreader of disinformation in the world, and once he lost access to the Oval Office and his Twitter account, dozens of false claims that the media would otherwise have spent all day running down simply disappeared from the headlines.
At the same time, Trumpism — particularly its false claim that the election was rigged for Joe Biden — has remained an ugly, powerful current in American life. More than a year after Biden’s inauguration, Republican politicians continue to repeat the Big Lie, using it successfully as a pretext for stripping away voting rights. On occasion, this kind of disinformation even seeps into the mainstream of the American press — as when a Michigan outlet this week described “the Republican Secretary of State hopefuls planning to tackle voter fraud,” normalizing the idea that elections might be stolen otherwise.
On one hand, the decay of our information environment is plain to see: tech platforms that historically have been all but indifferent to the quality of information they promote; a decline in journalism jobs, particularly at local and regional publications, across the country; and a polarized citizenry that increasingly doubts the legitimacy of American democracy.
On the other, as I wrote here yesterday, it can be easy to over-rotate on the idea that information quality alone is at the root of our problems. Another way of putting it, as Matt Yglesias did at Slow Boring this week, is that disinformation is too easily used as a scapegoat by Democrats seeking to gloss over some rather unsexy political problems. Yglesias calls it “a self-exculpatory cope” — and worries that it’s an electoral dead end:
Less-educated people are less knowledgeable and less media literate, and that’s not ideal. But Democrats need to read the correlation in the correct direction and try harder to appeal to their values, not write them off as too misinformed to be reached.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had two chances to see Obama make his case for the urgency of addressing disinformation. The first was at a fireside chat with Jeffrey Goldberg at a conference organized by The Atlantic in Chicago. In that conversation, Obama said that he had been surprised at how vulnerable American institutions are to those who would flood the airwaves with lies. And he worries that those lies pose an existential threat to democracy.
“It’s very difficult for us to get out of the reality that is constructed for us,” he told Goldberg. “And that is part of the reason why the stakes of this issue are so important, because it is difficult for me to see how we win the contest of ideas if in fact we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work.”
On Thursday, I got to hear the more refined version of this argument. Obama paid a visit to Stanford University in Palo Alto, and delivered an hourlong keynote address at a conference titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Realm.”
Typically when a politician wanders into this realm, I brace myself for the inch-deep thoughts and half-baked solutions that almost always follow. But Obama has clearly done the reading — his talk today demonstrated an excellent command of the scope and significance of our problems online, while also owning up to the limits of an approach focused solely on removing disinformation to repair our democracy.
Notably, he preceded his critique by talking up the power and potential of a free and open internet — something that seems to have fallen into disfavor among both Democrats and Republicans. And he acknowledged that social platforms helped to power his own rise.
“I might never have been elected president if it hadn’t been for — and I’m dating myself here — websites like MySpace, Meetup, and Facebook — that allowed an army of young volunteers to organize, raise money, and spread our message,” he said. “And since then, we’ve all witnessed the way activists use social platforms to register dissent, shine a light on injustice, and mobilize people on issues like climate change and racial justice.”
The problem, he said, is that “our new information ecosystem is turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses.” Some of that is intentional, he said, and some isn’t. But ultimately it requires a society-level response. Otherwise, he said, America could be doomed to one day more closely resemble modern-day Russia, in which an autocrat rises to power, clamps down on information flows, and gradually undoes our democracy.
Obama acknowledged that social divisions predate Facebook and Twitter. And efforts to regulate speech will often run afoul of the First Amendment, for which he affirmed his strong support.
But something must be done, Obama said, citing perhaps the most grim statistic in the entire COVID-19 pandemic: around 1 in 5 Americans refuse to get vaccinated under the false belief it is likely to cause them harm. “People are dying because of misinformation,” he said.
In part that’s because of the way platforms are designed to promote scandal and outrage, he said. In part that’s because they have paid too little attention to the quality of the information that is traveling the farthest and the fastest. And in part it’s because lawmakers have not implemented meaningful regulations.
So what to do? Like most people who venture into these waters, it’s here that Obama has the most trouble. Not because his ideas are bad — they’re better than most of what I’ve heard Congress suggest — but because they are so limited. It’s possible to imagine all of the president’s most practical suggestions being implemented and still wonder how they could reverse a global slide into autocracy.
Still, he makes several worthy suggestions. Platforms should describe their algorithmic recommendation systems in greater detail, so that we understand who benefits the most (and who doesn’t). (“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,” he said. “But they do have to tell the meat inspector.”)
They should add “circuit breakers” that slow the spread of viral posts to give fact-checkers a chance to review them, he argued. They should offer academics access to their systems to enable more meaningful research. They should fund nonprofit newsrooms.
And, Obama says, we should regulate tech platforms. He talked briefly about at least considering reform of Section 230, the law that exempts tech companies from legal liability in most cases for what their users post online. (I wish he had said more, particularly about how such reforms would pass First Amendment scrutiny.)
Obama also called on platform employees to advocate for changes like these — and to quit if none are made.
“These companies need to have a north star other than just making money and increasing partisanship,” he said. “To fix a problem they helped create, but also stand for something bigger. To the employees of these companies … you have the power to move things in the right direction. You can advocate for change. You can be part of this redesign — or you can vote with your feet and go work for the companies that are trying to do the right thing.”
As a set of problems, I continue to worry that disinformation is downstream of certain grim electoral realities. If Republicans don’t have to win a majority of voters through persuasion or compromise, and can simply brute-force their way into office by curtailing voting rights, why would Steve Bannon and his ilk ever temper the false claims that make that easier? How can platforms and media companies effectively respond to a party that does not recognize the legitimacy of fair elections?
When power is unaccountable, power is abused. I don’t know how you solve that at the platform level.
But platforms undoubtedly could play a dramatic role in improving our information ecosystem. They could do so by massively funding nonprofit or public media. They could use the template of their COVID response to promote high-quality information sources wherever they are showing news, and demote hyperpartisan outlets. They could slow the speed of viral posts to give the truth a chance to catch up.
They could end “trending topics.” They could promote positive interactions and community building that cuts across political parties. They could form public-private partnerships to disseminate data about state-level actors who are conducting information operations here and around the world.
Or they could largely ignore these threats in favor of focusing on shorter-term goals: the next milestone on the product road map, the next set of quarterly earnings.
If they do, though, they would do well to remember the fate of internet platforms in Russia once autocracy was complete: disappearing one by one, like lights blinking off in a rolling power outage.
“We won’t get it right all at once,” Obama said. “That’s how democracy works. … We continue to perfect our union.”
Of course, it’s one thing to deliver a speech, and another thing to see these ideas through. Both platforms and Congress have been resistant to major changes for years now, and it’s unclear what levers Obama will have to pull even if he were still president.
Still, as we head into the midterm elections, the purposeful use of lies and hoaxes to justify seizing power deserves a fresh look. Obama clearly understands the stakes. If ever there were a moment for change we can believe in, it’s now.
Elsewhere in Obama: His disinformation reading list. How he got focused on the subject. And why he’s not renewing his Spotify deal.
Musk has the money
One big question about Elon Musk’s effort to acquire Twitter is whether he actually has the money necessary to make a Tender offer. According to a filing released Thursday, he actually does: the Tesla CEO says he has commitments of $46.5 billion in loans to make it happen.
So far, he hasn’t announced any equity partners in the deal — or actually made the tender offer he keeps teasing on Twitter. That helps explain why the market barely moved on the news; at Axios, Dan Primack remains skeptical. But Matt Levine is pleasantly surprised, and adds: Twitter’s board has to take Musk seriously, now.
Elsewhere, Bloomberg looks at how Musk’s embrace of speech squares with his use of nondisclosure agreements and attempts to silence his critics.
The European Union’s Digital Services Act, which could have a huge impact on tech platforms of all kinds, is set to be unveiled Friday. Many provisions, but here’s one relevant to today’s column: “Regulators will also include an emergency mechanism to force platforms to disclose what steps they are taking to tackle misinformation or propaganda in light of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.” (Javier Espinoza / Financial Times)
Lobbyists are trying to ram through a last-minute addition to the DSA that would force search engines to proactively search for copyrighted content and delist the entire websites of offenders. Yuck: “if a video is illegally uploaded on YouTube, Google would have to remove the entire platform from its search results.” (Luca Bertuzzi / Euractiv)
Google will now let users reject all cookies with a single click after watchdogs fined it $170 million for making the process confusing. (James Vincent / The Verge)
A look at the surge of bills seeking to regulate online speech at the state level, where proposals range from prohibiting the removal of legal speech to prohibiting the use of recommendation algorithms. So … unconstitutional stuff, basically. (Ashley Gold
Binance stopped offering services to Russians with more than €$10,000 to comply with EU sanctions. (Ryan Weeks / The Block)
How Putin ended the global ambitions of its biggest internet companies, limiting expansion and even jailing executives at companies like Yandex and Kaspersky Labs. (Joseph Menn / Washington Post)
Thanks to new sanctions against the United States, Mark Zuckerberg is no longer welcome in Russia. Putting a huge crimp in his summer plans, no doubt. (Reuters)
Apple spent $2.5 million on lobbying in the first quarter of the year, a record high. (Jarrell Dillard and Bill Allison / Bloomberg)
Snap missed revenue expectations on its quarterly earnings but reported higher-than-expected user growth, leading to an after-hours surge in its stock price. (Kif Leswing / CNBC)
Amazon introduced Buy with Prime, essentially white-labeling the company’s shipping and logistics services to let merchants fulfill orders on their own websites. (Annie Palmer / CNBC)
Under pressure from advocacy groups, Apple committed to undertaking a civil rights audit of its products and workplace practices. Meta recently completed one; Amazon has agreed to do one as well. (Cristiano Lima / Washington Post)
Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg is facing internal scrutiny amid reports she intervened to pressure a tabloid not to publish a possible story about her then-boyfriend, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick. (Ben Fritz, Keach Hagey, Kirsten Grind, and Emily Glazer / Wall Street Journal)
Spotify opened up video podcasting through Anchor to all users in the United States, United Kingdom, and a handful of other countries. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
A critique of the practice of “staking” in crypto, focused on Bored Ape Yacht Club’s ApeCoin, which has moved from a way to reward users of a protocol for putting up collateral to keep it operating to a mechanism for preventing people from selling their coins. “What it really means is “lets pay existing holders for not selling while the founder / investor / contributor unlocks happen, and also so we can fake some utility before any is actually built”. (Cobie)
Corporate sexual-harassment seminars are coming to virtual reality. (Pranshu Verma / Washington Post)
Those good tweets
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Great article Casey and thanks for putting up the links at the end of the Obama article
I’m disappointed, but not entirely surprised, by the way Obama frames the options available to tech workers looking to rectify the damage done: “[You can be] part of this redesign — or you can vote with your feet and go work for the companies that are trying to do the right thing.”
Conspicuously absent is any explicit mention of the current moment the labor movement is having in the tech industry, and the potential for organized tech workers across the industry to more aggressively make demands of their employers and ability to steer the companies into really solving these problems, immediate profits be damned. That kind of movement is in direct opposition to today’s status quo, where these decisions are left to a select number of SVPs w/ enormous RSU grants that all but guarantee they act in a manner that maximizes the stock price.
Without that kind of deliberate organization of tech workers, it’s hard to see how his suggestions meaningfully move the needle. For years at this point, ethically minded tech workers have been both advocating internally for doing the right thing and quitting when they inevitably burn out from trying to overcome walls put up by uninterested senior leadership, and we’re still in this terrible position. And with the entrenched market + computing power most of these companies have, evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that brand new companies starting from first principles of being ethically+socially minded really stand much of a chance at improving things either.
With that, and the absence of smart legislative oversight with real teeth behind it (which feels impossible given the state of the House and Senate in the US), organizing labor at the largest tech companies seems to me like our best chance for actually making meaningful change happen.