Barack Obama on our governing social media in support of democracy

A measured analysis and synthesis of the challenge and the opportunity.

For those without the time to watch the video or read the Medium post, I have extracted the most salient parts right here. I’m nice like that :grin:

I make one inline comment in square brackets. I have bolded sections that really stand out to me.

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Reinhold Niebuhr

Democracy is neither inevitable nor self-executed. Citizens like us have to nurture it.

We’ll have to reform our political institutions in ways that allow people to be heard and give them real agency. We’ll have to tell better stories about ourselves and how we can live together, despite our differences.

[Social media has] made all of us more prone to what psychologists call confirmation bias, the tendency to select facts and opinions that reinforce our preexisting worldviews and filter out those that don’’s made all of us more prone to what psychologists call confirmation bias, the tendency to select facts and opinions that reinforce our preexisting worldviews and filter out those that don’t.

… in the competition between truth and falsehood, cooperation and conflict, the very design of these platforms seems to be tilting us in the wrong direction.

People like Putin and Steve Bannon, for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions. 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 theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe.

… a few stipulations so we don’t get bogged down in some well-worn, not always productive arguments:

  1. Social media did not create racism or white supremacist groups. It didn’t create the kind of ethno-nationalism that Putin’s enraptured with. It didn’t create sexism, class conflict, religious strife, greed, envy, all the deadly sins.

  2. … we aren’t going to get rid of all offensive or inflammatory content on the web. That is a strawman. We’d be wrong to try.

  3. … any rules we come up with to govern the distribution of content on the Internet will involve value judgments.

The way I’m going to evaluate any proposal touching on social media and the Internet is whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy, inclusive democracy, whether it encourages robust debate and respect for our differences, whether it reinforces rule of law and self-governance, whether it helps us make collective decisions based on the best available information, and whether it recognizes the rights and freedoms and dignity of all our citizens.

Supply side:

… tech platforms need to accept that the play a unique role in how we, as a people and people around the world, are consuming information and that their decisions have an impact on every aspect of society. With that power comes accountability, and in democracies like ours, at least, the need for some democratic oversight.

But while content moderation can limit the distribution of clearly dangerous content, it doesn’t go far enough. Users who want to spread disinformation have become experts at pushing right up to the line of what at least published company policies allow. And at those margins, social media platforms tend not to want to do anything, not just because they don’t want to be accused of censorship, because they still have a financial incentive to keep as many users engaged as possible. More importantly, these companies are still way too guarded about how exactly their standards operate, or how their engagement ranking systems influence what goes viral and what doesn’t.

… decisions like this shouldn’t be left solely to private interests. These decisions affect all of us, and just like every other industry that has a big impact in our society, that means these big platforms need to be subject to some level of public oversight and regulation.

… tech companies need to be more transparent about how they operate. So much of the conversation around disinformation is focused on what people post. The bigger issue is what content these platforms promote. Algorithms have evolved to the point where nobody on the outside of these companies can accurately predict what they’ll do … And sometimes, even the people who build them aren’t sure. That’s a problem.

We do expect these companies to affirm the importance of our democratic institutions, not dismiss them, and to work to find the right combination of regulation and industry standards that will make democracy stronger. And because companies recognize the often dangerous relationship between social media, nationalism, domestic hate groups, they do need to engage with vulnerable populations about how to put better safeguards in place to protect minority populations, ethnic populations, religious minorities, wherever they operate.

Demand side:

It starts with breaking through our information bubbles.

… our opinions aren’t fixed, and that means our divisions aren’t fixed either if we can agree on some common baseline effects and agree on some common baseline of how we debate and sort out our disagreements.

Part of this project is also going to require us to find creative ways to reinvigorate quality journalism, including local journalism.

We should also think about how to build civic institutions for a new generation. I mentioned the decline of what are called mediating institutions — unions, Rotary clubs, bowling leagues, right? But the thing is, studies show that if you participated in an organization, like Student Council, which I did not — (laughter) — or the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, groups that allow young people to practice learning, debating, voting, making decisions together, then you’re much more likely to vote and be an active citizen.

And finally, it is important to reinforce these norms and values on an international scale. This is a globally integrated Internet. There’s value in that, but it means that as we’re shaping roles, we have to engage the rest of the world.

As the world’s leading democracy, we have to set a better example.

[The USA is in fact nowhere near “the world’s leading democracy”. The most recent Democracy Index categorises it as a flawed democracy, placing it 26th of 167 countries.]

We’re so fatalistic about the steady stream of bile and vitriol that’s on there, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, if we’re going to succeed, it can’t be that way.

The handwritten sign was a tool. TV’s a tool. The Internet is a tool. Social media is a tool. At the end of the day, tools don’t control us. We control them, and we can remake them. It’s up to each of us to decide what we value, and then use the tools we’ve been given to advance those values. And I believe we should use every tool at our disposal to secure our greatest gift, a government of, by, for the people for generations to come.