Former President Barack Obama on Thursday warned of the dangers posed by misinformation on social media and called for regulatory changes to address the issue.
“With the rise of social media and the need to better understand people’s online behavior, in order to sell more advertising, companies want to collect more data,” Obama said in a Thursday speech at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. “More companies optimized for personalization, engagement and speed. And unfortunately, it turns out that inflammatory, polarizing content attracts and engages.”
He pointed to the massive misinformation about vaccines that helped cause a longer and deadlier pandemic than necessary. “The fact that scientists developed safe, effective vaccines in record time is an unbelievable achievement,” he said. “And yet despite the fact that we’ve now, essentially clinically tested the vaccine on billions of people worldwide, around one in five Americans is still willing to put themselves at risk and put their families at risk rather than get vaccinated. People are dying because of misinformation.”
During the speech, Obama said one issue affecting social media platforms is the lack of transparency into their content prioritization algorithms. Social media companies don’t provide sufficient visibility into how their “engagement ranking systems influence what goes viral and what doesn’t,” Obama said. Elsewhere in the speech, he warned that the emergence of artificial intelligence will only lead to disinformation becoming more sophisticated in the future.
Obama said combating disinformation more effectively will require increased public oversight of social media platforms. “These big platforms need to be subject to some level of public oversight and regulation,” Obama said.
He added that “without some standards, implications of this technology, for our elections, for our legal system, for our democracy, for rules of evidence, for our entire social order are frightening and profound.”
Obama went on to draw attention to the ongoing debate around Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields social media companies from lawsuits over user-generated content. The provision also applies to certain other tech companies. Section 230 has emerged as a key focus in the debate over social media disinformation.
“While I’m not convinced that wholesale repeal of Section 230 is the answer, it is clear that tech companies have changed dramatically over the last 20 years,” Obama stated. “And we need to consider reforms to Section 230 to account for those changes, including whether platforms should be required to have a higher standard of care, when it comes to advertising on their site.”
Obama added that “the way I’m going to evaluate any proposal touching on social media and the internet is whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy, inclusive 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 our citizens.”
Obama highlighted that there are many examples from other industries of regulations being implemented to address new developments and improve public safety.
“Here in the United States, we have a long history of regulating new technologies in the name of public safety, from cars and airplanes to prescription drugs to appliances,” Obama said. “And while companies initially always complain that the rules are going to stifle innovation and destroy the industry, the truth is, is that a good regulatory environment usually ends up spurring innovation because it raises the bar on safety and quality.”