‘People are Dying Because of Misinformation’: Obama Bashes Tech Firms Over ‘Disinformation Problem’
Recent research by credibility assessment website Newsguard revealed that Facebook and Instagram allowed sceptical views about COVID vaccines and misinformation about the disease to spread across its platforms last year, something that helped them gain about 370,000 new followers.
Former US President Barack Obama has accused tech companies of failing to address what he called “the disinformation problem”, urging them to provide greater transparency about the way they promote content.
Speaking at Stanford University in California on Thursday, Obama said that 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”.
“For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren't just our window into the internet. They serve as our primary source of news and information. No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions and subtle manipulations”, the 44th president added.
He claimed that the design of major social media platforms relied on maximising engagement so that people can spend more time on their websites, noting that “unfortunately, it turns out that inflammatory, polarising content attracts and engages”.
18 September 2021, 20:29 GMT
“Other features of these platforms have compounded the problem. For example, 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 [US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director and White House chief medical adviser] and a miracle cure being pitched by a huckster”, Obama said.
He then went even further by arguing that “people are dying because of misinformation”, pointing to distrust over the COVID-19 vaccine and the riot in Washington on 6 January 2021, when scores of Donald Trump supporters breached the Capitol building to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 US presidential election. Police killed at least one protester during the occupation.
Obama also called for a multipronged approach to grappling with disinformation, including government reform, tech employee-led change and a shift in the way that users perceive news and information online.
“At the end of the day 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 and for the people, for generations to come”, he stressed.
Obama said it was time for the US government to consider regulating parts of Big Tech, and examining the role of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media companies and internet service providers from litigation over content posted on their platforms.
Obama’s remarks come amid Congress’ efforts to adopt a spate of reforms to rein in the power of the tech industry, including competition laws, privacy protections and changes to Section 230.