Former President Barack Obama spoke at length about the spread of misinformation during the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, saying he underestimated how vulnerable the world’s democracies were, including the U.S., while he was in the White House.
Obama made the comments during a conference on disinformation Wednesday, speaking about his experience dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s iron grip on information on the country amid its invasion of Ukraine. But he added the threat of misinformation had come to roost at home, saying the nation had a “demand for crazy on the internet that we have to grapple with.”
“If you asked me what I’m most concerned about when I think back toward the end of my presidency, it probably has more to do with the topic here today,” he said at the event, presented by The Atlantic and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. “It’s something I grappled with a lot during my presidency. I saw it sort of unfold, and that is the degree to which information, disinformation, misinformation was being weaponized.”
“I think I underestimated the degree to which democracies were as vulnerable to it as they were, including ours,” Obama continued.
He pointed to repeated claims from many Americans — including his successor, Donald Trump — that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, as well as widespread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
“For all the flaws that exist in our own society, you can get any information you want right now. Unfiltered, there’s literally nothing you cannot receive right now in this room,” Obama said. “And yet, in our society … roughly 40% of the country appears convinced that the current president was elected fraudulently and that the election was rigged.”
He went on to say social media companies should be more transparent about their practices rather than profiting off conflict.
“The growth of social media and technology whose product design monetizes anger, resentment, conflict, division and in some cases makes people very vulnerable … can lead to violence,” he said. “It’s not just the Rohingya in Myanmar, it’s not just in some far-off place. But if you are a woman, if you are a person of color, if you are a trans person… what’s said matters.”