STANFORD, Calif. (CN) — Former President Barack Obama gave warnings on Thursday that an unregulated digital world will lead to the continued erosion of democracy across the globe.
In his keynote speech in collaboration with the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, Obama called out media ignorance, autocrats, Steve Bannon, Trump supporters and even Fox News. This day-long cyber symposium centered on challenges to democracy faced in the digital age.
Before delving into vastly intersectional issues faced by tech giants, political leaders, the working class and children, Obama rallied support for Ukraine and called Vladimir Putin's actions aggressive and part of a sweeping trend of "strongmen" toppling democracy, compromising human rights and turning a blind eye to international law.
Despite intense claims, the talk attempted to be bipartisan — calling all who believe in a true democracy to be alarmed by the current cyber landscape.
"We're living through another tumultuous, dangerous moment in history," Obama said.
He continued to explain the dangers of the Trump administration and its lasting effects on eroding the democratic process and criticizing the violent January 6, 2021 riot. Many Trump followers continue to hold offices in some of the highest places, taking actions to restrict voting access and interrupt the public's voice. Federal cases against these efforts are taking place in Georgia, Montana, Texas, and numerous other states.
"We have to admit that at least in the years since the Cold War ended, democracies have grown dangerously complacent, but too often we've taken freedom for granted what recent events remind us is that democracy is neither inevitable nor self-executing. Citizens like us have to nurture it. We have to attend to it and fight for it," Obama said.
"We'll have to come up with new models for a more inclusive equitable capitalism," Obama claimed — a sentence carefully structured given the rampant fear of terminology that could signify any altercation to America's capitalist culture. This comes after explaining the trends of global political dysfunction, the decline in community engagement and politicians making the democratic process seem expendable.
The world of mass media has changed drastically since the 1990s. Then, politicians, press, commentators and the public were working with the same facts passed on from broadcast journalists like Walter Cronkite. Now, as click-based journalism and algorithms control personal news and media feeds, people don't have their views regularly challenged, their oversights called out, and personal truths are reinforced, according to Obama.
"The way content looks on your phone, as well as the veil of anonymity that platforms provide their users a lot of times, can make it impossible to tell the difference between, say a peer-reviewed article by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a miracle cure being pitched by a huckster. And meanwhile, sophisticated actors, from political consultants to commercial interests to intelligence arms of foreign powers, can game platform algorithms or artificially boost the reach of the semaphore or harmful messages. Of course, this business model has proven to be wildly successful," Obama said.
Continuing to explain how social media has blurred the lines between fact, fiction, news and entertainment, Obama stated that cat videos circulate right along with "lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, white supremacist, racist tracks, misogynist screeds."
In further analysis of the current state of media, Obama urged for more non-profit newsrooms and alluded to the need to help fund journalism so as to cut back on media companies' need to sell advertising space. Since most news companies rely on advertising to stay in business, editors, journalists and reporters have had to aim for sensationalized news takes. By creating click-worthy stories, they grab the public's attention — fact or fiction.
Obama also discussed a recent study where researchers paid regular Fox News viewers to switch to CNN for a month. The participants were primarily white, elderly Trump supporters. The results showed drastic opinion changes and significantly less belief in far-right claims. For example, there was a decline in the credibility of the September 2020 Fox News angle that if Joe Biden were to be elected president, police officers would start getting shot at by Black Lives Matter activists.
"Our opinions aren't fixed. And that means our divisions aren't fixed either. If we can agree on some common baseline of facts and agree on some common baseline of how we debate and sort out our disagreements… So, as citizens, we have to take it upon ourselves to become better consumers of news," Obama said.
His "whack-a-mole" plan for tackling digital literacy includes a media literacy curriculum in schools so children raised in the digital world are taught how to navigate it. Obama made a point to explain that basic media literacy and teaching kids and teens to check sources and differentiate between fact and opinion in mass communications doesn't have an ideological agenda.
Obama also advocated for media regulations, though specific policies were unclear. He explained that while industry standards are needed and a step in the right direction, they quickly become meaningless without some policy to back them up and hold companies accountable. There were also urges for Congress and people like himself with a platform to "get our act together."
"If Congress is too polarized to pass anything, we probably won't make the kind of progress we need… 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," Obama stated.
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