Obama tackles disinformation after failing to ‘fully appreciate’ issue while president

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When former President Obama gave an hourlong speech on disinformation last week, it wasn’t just a one-off, sources around him say.

Those close to Obama said the speech was a particularly important one for him and explained why he devoted so much time to the topic.

“These big speeches are rare. He hasn’t done a ton of these in the post-presidency,” one source close to the former president said of the speech. “He’s really trying to move the needle on it.”

The source said he views the topic as falling under the umbrella of democracy and the speech was part of an ongoing conversation the former president plans to continue in the coming months.

“He believes this is an issue that is a part of the threat to democracy, so it will come up anytime he speaks,” the source said, pointing to various forums he’s participated in this year, including one in April in Chicago.

Disinformation researchers say that while Obama isn’t offering novel solutions and is a bit late to the game, they are hopeful his stature and influence can help spur change, at least on the left.

“I can’t think of another public official, even a formerly elected official, who has dealt with this issue as intimately as directly and at such a high level for longer than Barack Obama,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“I don’t think the problem with disinformation lacks attention or awareness. Sometimes it lacks action, and a community organizer from the southside of Chicago is probably as good a person as any to do something about it,” he added.

While Obama won’t deliver another major speech on the issue in the coming months or make it a part of his ongoing Netflix documentary series, sources say he is expected to continue the discussion in roundtables, forums and town halls with his foundation.

In the last year, behind the scenes, Obama has convened meetings with academics, activists, media executives and former government officials to discuss disinformation, the source close to Obama said.

“He will absolutely be talking about this more,” the source said. “This is something that is going to involve multiple takes.”

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said Obama first reached out to him about a year ago to discuss the issue. Robinson, like other activists, suggested Obama’s best tool in this fight is his voice.

“President Obama has the ability to inject hope into this conversation, hope that we can solve the problem and energy for more people to get involved. And I feel like, in so many ways, having the former president involved gives us the ability to welcome more people into this conversation,” Robinson said.

At the roundtable in Chicago earlier this month, Obama telegraphed that he plans to put disinformation at the forefront during his post-presidency.

“What I think our goal is going to be over the next several months as we continue to talk about this is, how can we create better information for people? How can we give people the capacity to sort out truth from falsehood?”

During his Stanford speech last week, Obama called for a multipronged approach to mitigate disinformation online, urging both industry- and government-led reforms.

While welcoming Obama’s efforts, however, some experts knocked the former president for not taking action on the issue sooner.

“As a disinformation expert and a civil rights lawyer who thinks about the intersections, I’m on the one hand very grateful that he has come forward with a set of very clear-eyed and holistic solutions,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press.

“That being said, it feels very late in the game to see former President Obama come forward with these comments,” she said.

Obama himself said he regrets failing to “fully appreciate” during the 2016 election “just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories.”

His speech lambasting tech companies marked a stark contrast to the relatively friendly relationship he had with Silicon Valley giants during his presidency, at a time when tech giants accumulated power.

The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under the Trump and Biden administrations are now going after tech giants in antitrust lawsuits, based on deals that were solidified under Obama’s watch. The FTC’s case against Facebook seeks to undo the company’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram that were approved under the former president.

The chances of the FTC succeeding in breaking up Meta, the new parent company name of Facebook, now are “relatively slight,” but the Obama administration may have had a chance around the time of the acquisitions to use its leverage to block or impose constraints on them, said New York University (NYU) Law School adjunct professor Paul Barrett.

“As he acknowledged to an extent, it’s a little painful to recognize how much more influential this could have been if he had delivered it while he was still president. Better late than never. Absolutely. I’m glad he gave the speech. But we are far down the road with the problems that he identified, and now it’s a really difficult undertaking to roll back the clock and roll back the bad tendencies that have come along with the advantages of social media,” Barrett said.

And although Obama is a unifying figure on the left, experts say he could fuel so-called culture war attacks on solutions that are nonpartisan.

“I think something that we’re cognizant of and concerned about is that the issues that we’re working on don’t get sort of pushed through the partisan filter that things seem to in America,” said Carys Afoko, director of advocacy at Mozilla.

Laura Edelson, an NYU researcher behind a tool to examine Facebook ads and misinformation that the platform essentially shut down, said overall she sees Obama having a “net” positive effect, despite being seen as a partisan actor on the left, by elevating a sense of urgency.

“We just need to get something done. And that just getting something done is so hard in this climate,” she said.

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