Obama Risks Embracing Cynicism With Recent Speech About Social Media

Daniel Castro May 5, 2022
May 5, 2022

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The recent backlash against “Big Tech” seems to have converted one of America’s most historically optimistic politicians to a newfound cynic when it comes to social media. In a recent speech at Stanford University, former President Barack Obama offered his take on how to address online disinformation that he argues threatens democracy. The gist of his argument was that social media companies need to better moderate their platforms, government needs to better regulate tech companies, and citizens need to learn how to better consume news. 

In many ways, his speech provided a refreshing take on these issues. But it was not refreshing because of its novelty. Indeed, his remarks did not break ground on any original ideas. Nor were his proposed solutions particularly elegant. For example, his proposal to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was light on details, but heavy on unintended consequences. Instead, his speech was refreshing because it was not filled with the partisan-fueled hyperbole that characterizes most of the political commentary on this issue.

Typically, those on the right blast tech companies for censoring conservative voices while those on the left admonish them for failing to stop the spread of harmful content. The right believes these companies are controlled by West Coast liberals completely at odds with conservative values while the left believes these companies are controlled by greedy capitalists completely at odds with progressive values. They cannot agree on what the correct solution should be, but they are all convinced that social media companies are to blame.

Obama’s speech was extraordinary because it was so ordinary.

Throughout his remarks, he discussed the importance of innovation and technological progress, he noted that many concerns about the Internet are unavoidable consequences of connecting billions of people, and he acknowledged that the private sector is working hard to address problems that arise.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. After all, it would be strange for a politician whose political success was so closely tied to social media to completely repudiate it. Moreover, although he is a self-proclaimed progressive, Obama has often favored centrism in both his politics and policies. 

Yet his speech still offers a vivid contrast to the hostility most elected officials take to social media companies. Remember, it was only a year ago that President Biden declared Facebook was “killing people” (remarks he later walked back).

Unfortunately, Obama also showed how easy it is to slip into populist rhetoric. He directed most of the blame at the sophisticated actors actively generating the disinformation, but he also accused social media companies of allowing disinformation to protect their profits. He stated

“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.”

This is disappointing for two reasons. First, it’s simply wrong. Social media companies have routinely updated their content moderate policies and practices to address changing circumstances and new insights, such as addressing terror-related content, producing transparency reports, and creating appeals processes. They have even announced major initiatives such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and Facebook’s Oversight Board to institutionalize improvements and bring in outside perspectives.

Second, arguing that social media companies are only acting in their own self-interests is exactly the type of cynical view of the world that as a candidate Obama argued passionately against. Anti-tech activists routinely try to vilify these companies as the next reincarnation of Big Tobacco—knowingly poisoning their customers with an addictive product to pad their bottom line—and claim those who dispute this narrative are merely shills. But facts matter, and the fact remains that technological innovation is one of the greatest catalysts of economic growth and improvements in quality of life, and the tech industry is a key enabler of this progress. 

As Obama once said, “Cynicism is fashionable these days. But I got to tell you, cynicism didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynicism did not create the opportunity for all our citizens to vote. Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed young minds.”

There is plenty of political division on tech policy issues, so collaboration on complex issues like data privacy, content moderation, antitrust is harder than ever. But finding a productive path forward will be nearly impossible unless both parties can put aside their cynical views of technology and the tech sector.

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Obama Risks Embracing Cynicism With Recent Speech About Social Media