The former US president weighs in on the threat of misinformation to democracy and calls on tech giants to take more responsibility.
Barack Obama has said the rise in misinformation and fake news “is the biggest threat to our democracy” in an interview with The Atlantic this week.
“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis,” he said.
Obama doesn’t blame the tech companies, because he believes it predates social media, but claims they have “turbocharged it”.
He believes a combination of government regulation and corporate practices are needed to address these issues, which he says are going to get worse. He also called out social media companies for “insisting that they are more like a phone company… I do not think this is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not”.
Writing for the i,journalist Ian Burrell expressed similar concerns: “In a world without news, conspiracy theories thrive… News is the enemy of such dangerous misinformation.”
However, “thankfully, the British public still seems to understand the value of professional journalism,” Burrell said. “The number of Britons engaging with news brands (aka newspapers) has grown to 38 million a day.”
Latest Newsworks research, The World Without News, supports this, showing that 70% of people believe that a world without news is harmful to democracy, with 66% of people saying they appreciate news more since the Coronavirus pandemic.
Although, as Burrell points out, “all of which would be reassuring, if only the public’s increased support for British journalism was reflected in greater revenues from advertisers, who prefer to throw money at the tech platforms”. His view is that “advertisers, which benefit from public trust in media, should do more to fight misinformation”.
This theme was debated by a panel at Mindshare’s Huddle last week, including Newswork’s client director Niki West. Fellow panellist, Jerry Daykin, senior media director at GSK, said: “[Advertisers] have a responsibility to fund the good stuff… we need to prioritise high quality space because we are, at least partially, responsible for that.” You can read Niki’s write up about the sustainable future of news here.
An exclusive extract from Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, is available in The Sunday Times.