Posted on November 19, 2020

Obama: The Internet Is ‘the Single Biggest Threat to Our Democracy’

Peter Kafka, Recode, November 16, 2020

Back in 2008, Barack Obama famously harnessed the internet and social media to help win the White House. He kept up the embrace once he got there.

Now he worries that the internet and social media have helped create “the single biggest threat to our democracy.”


His latest critique comes in a new interview between Obama and Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, and before we go any further we should put it in full context: Obama was discussing a media landscape dominated not just by Facebook but by Fox News that allows Americans to choose their own distorted reality. {snip}


Obama: Now you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring…I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and was getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories.

Goldberg: Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice?

Obama: I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy.

Later in the interview, Obama makes it quite clear that much of his concern is specifically about the internet — which he is also quite clear isn’t “going away” — and the big platforms that sort and distribute most of the internet for most people:

Obama: I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this, because it’s going to get worse. If you can perpetrate crazy lies and conspiracy theories just with texts, imagine what you can do when you can make it look like you or me saying anything on video. We’re pretty close to that now…

Goldberg: It’s that famous Steve Bannon strategy: flood the zone with shit.

Obama: 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.


During his eight-year tenure, though, Obama was quite welcoming to the tech industry, and vice versa: Obama stocked the White House with Silicon Valley veterans, and White House veterans later landed important jobs in Silicon Valley.


But it wasn’t until after the election that Obama sounded off in public about “active misinformation” on Facebook and TV. Days later, he pulled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg aside for a private plea “to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously.”