Apr 6, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Obama: "I underestimated" disinformation's threat to democracies

Photo of Barack Obama's face
Former President Obama speaks at COP26 on Nov. 8, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo: Ian Forsyth via Getty Images

Former President Obama said Wednesday that he "underestimated the degree to which democracies" are vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation, including the U.S.

Why it matters: Misinformation and disinformation have grown into an increasingly alarming crisis in the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic and as Republican officials, including former President Trump, spread baseless conspiracy theories of election fraud during the 2020 election and beyond.

What he's saying: "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," Obama said Wednesday at a conference on disinformation 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."
  • "And we saw it, but I think I underestimated the degree to which democracies were as vulnerable to it as they were, including ours," he noted.
  • Misinformation is "wrong information," but disinformation is "a systematic effort to either promote false information, to suppress true information, for the purpose of political gain, financial gain, enhancing power, suppressing others, targeting those you don't like," he said.
  • "It is difficult for me to see how we win the contest of ideas if in fact we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work."

The big picture: Facebook said last year that the U.S. is the top target of disinformation campaigns on its platforms.

  • A coalition of groups and advocates has called on President Biden to create a task force to explore ways to crack down on deliberate disinformation campaigns without unduly limiting free expression.
  • Social media companies’ product design “monetizes anger, resentment, conflict, division and in some cases makes people very vulnerable … and can lead to violence," Obama said.
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