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Former President Obama: Disinformation Fueling 'Dangerous Moment In History'

STANFORD (CBS SF) -- Using the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine as examples, former President Barack Obama spoke about the dangers of the disinformation age to the world's democracies in a speech calling for increased regulation of tech giants and social media companies.

The former president was delivering the keynote address at a Stanford University event Thursday afternoon. The event, co-hosted by the Obama Foundation and the university's Cyber Policy Center was Obama's latest stop in his ongoing effort to warn the public of the danger of misinformation and disinformation

Obama began his speech by noting what he called a "dangerous moment in history," with the Russian invasion of Ukraine being the latest in a larger trend of autocrats and aspiring strongmen being emboldened across the globe.

He quickly pivoted to the U.S. Capitol insurrection and former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

"Right here, in the United States of America, we just saw a sitting president deny the clear results of an election and help incite a violent insurrection at the nation's capital," said Obama. "Not only that, a majority of his party, including many who occupy some of the highest offices of the land, continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the last election and are using it to justify laws to restrict the vote and make it easier to overturn the will of the people in states where they hold power."

Obama said such events are helped by the manipulation of social media channels and the flood of disinformation designed to influence millions of people. He said Russia clearly interfered in the 2016 election with its strategic use of disinformation, and such state-sponsored social media campaigns are more effective than most people realize.

"No one in my administration was surprised that Russia was attempting to meddle in our election - they'd been doing that for years - or that it was using social media in these efforts," said Obama. "What does still nag at me, though, was my failure to fully appreciate at the time just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself. Putin didn't do that. He didn't have to. We did it to ourselves."

Doing nothing to address the disinformation problem will mean the trends we see today fueling online racism, hate speech, and conspiracy theories, Obama said, and the tools to foment the "big lie" will become more sophisticated.

Obama called for the development of additional strategies and innovations to respond to the organized spread of disinformation including the regulation of online public discourse and the government oversight of tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. The guiding principle for any proposed changes to the internet and social media would be whether it strengthens or weakens prospects for a healthy 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 of our citizens," he said. "Whatever changes contribute to that vision, I'm for. Whatever erodes that vision, I'm against."

Obama said at least in the years since the Cold War ended, democracies have grown dangerously complacent and its citizens have taken freedom for granted.

"What recent events remind us is that democracy is neither inevitable nor self-executing," said Obama. "Citizens like us have to nurture it. We have to tend to it and fight for it. And, as our circumstances change, we have to be willing to look at ourselves critically and make reforms that will allow democracy not just to survive, but to thrive."


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