Obama: Social media platforms’ pursuit of profits undermines democracy
Former law prof and former president, Barack Obama, talked social media and democracy at the University of Chicago. | AP

CHICAGO—Social media platforms’ pursuit of profits, without controlling for extremist content, leads to “a series of editorial choices” and rampant disinformation which can “undermine our democracy, and combined with a media ecosystem, can be fatal to it,” former President Barack Obama says.

Google, Facebook, Instagram,  and the like ignore or denigrate past safeguards on disinformation and lies, configuring their sites to produce the most clicks, and ad dollars, by attracting and holding viewers through extremist content, he explained.

And there’s another factor that helps clear the way for that threat, Obama told a long April 6 seminar, co-hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic monthly magazine: The debilitating decline of local journalism—leaving people at the mercy of “news” sites that peddle extremism in disguise.

That decline of local news, due to ad revenue losses to the Internet, and encroaching venture capital funds devouring and destroying local papers, is also a prime cause of The News Guild, which is battling the worst of them, Alden Capital—a fund Obama cited by name.

“The loss of local journalism, the growth of grievance-powered and anger-based journalism” is a result of “technology whose design monetizes anger and conflict, because people are very vulnerable” to emotional manipulation, he elaborated.

But current users must share part of the blame, Obama and other speakers at the 3-1/2 hours of sessions said. They ignore “guardrails”—both legal and traditional–against such lies, instead embracing falsehoods without fact-checking or consulting alternative sources.

That’s because the first Internet generation, overwhelmed by the lies, mistrusts facts and institutions, including data from responsible media, science, and government. The mistrust leads social media users to embrace extremism, conspiracy theories, and, frequently, violence, he said. They depend on disinformation, which Obama separated out from misinformation.

“Disinformation is if you have a systematic effort to promote false information and suppress true information for political gain, financial gain, or suppressing others whom you don’t like,” Obama, who spoke for the last 1-1/2 hours, told interviewer Jeff Goldberg, co-editor of The Atlantic.

“If you go back to the basics in our constitutional design,” the former Chicago constitutional law professor said, “you have freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of the press. Everybody has a say and we work it out.

“But in reality” and in history, “some voices were crowded out” including in the anti- Communist witch hunts of the Joe McCarthy era. Nevertheless, “We built a set of standards and a process” to control disinformation. “And now we’ve seen a shift away from that.”

The former president said the disinformation problem is not new, but abandoning standards is. Honolulu native Obama recalled the campaign of lies about his birth. Social media, egged on by Donald Trump, his eventual successor, promoted the “birther” canard that Obama was born abroad because it drew clicks, views, and ads. Obama did not name Trump.

Still, “On the demand side” from social media users, “there’s a demand for the crazy that we have to grapple with.” Answering an audience question, he issued his only politically tinged statement: “There’s a straight line between Sarah Palin”—the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee—through birtherism and opposition to coronavirus vaccines.

But, citing his own error, Obama also admitted data providers can trip up, providing ammo to extremists. Obama said his error was in lobbying for the passage of the Affordable Care Act. By verbal shorthand, he said everyone could keep their doctors.

The right, powered, though Obama did not say so, by the sight of a Black man in the White House, jumped on it via social media. “But it’s not what I meant,” Obama said in a jocular back-and-forth with Goldberg.

He explained that 85% of the U.S., people covered by private insurance that qualified under the ACA’s higher standards for coverage—such as providing free physicals—could keep their current physicians.

Others were victims of low-cost, no-benefit insurers whose operations flunked even the basics and paid out little or nothing for care. “There was phony insurance in the marketplace,” the former president said. Though he didn’t say so, such low-cost insurance—without disclosing its few benefits–was a favorite GOP trope during the ACA debate 12 years ago.

“Technically, it’s true” when right-wingers charged “He lied,” Obama admitted. “But they (the phonies) couldn’t offer insurance because they were regulated out of existence.”

But other insidious problems accompany the shift to social media as the prime gatekeeper for information, which in turn fuels extremism, he said. That’s where venture capitalism, which The News Guild calls “vulture capitalism,” enters the picture.

Obama specifically cited Alden Global Capital, now one of the U.S.’s largest newspaper chain owners, creating “news deserts” in cities nationwide. Former readers then become prey for so-called “news” sites peddling extremism in the guise of information, he explained.

Alden’s takeover of The Tribune Company—owner of Obama’s TNG-unionized hometown Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, the Hartford (Conn.), Courant, and other papers—is only the latest example of vulture capitalists’ threat to local news, The News Guild says. But given Alden’s growth into a large news chain, it’s worse.

And Google workers organized protests against their bosses, first over sexual harassment on the job and then over refusal to delete extremist exploitation. They’ve since formed the Alphabet Workers Union to further that goal, among others, even taking their cause to Congress. Alphabet is the renamed parent company of Google.

“Alphabet can make money without doing evil. We must prioritize the wellbeing of society and the environment over maximizing profits,” their mission statement sums up.

It’s that profit motive that drives the social media and their willingness to post and promote extremism, Obama and other speakers said.

Still, the former president sees some hope.

While the combination of social media, lies, and disinformation is worldwide, so are young people—whom his non-profit foundation is working with—who have learned to be skeptical of what they read on the net. But reversion to old norms won’t be quick.

Democracies, including in the U.S., have gotten “flabby,” about defending principles that created pre-Internet information guardrails, he explained. At times, he added, when the U.S., especially internationally, did not and does not live up to its own ideals.

“If we get democracy right, democracy is stronger around the globe. If we don’t others will fill the gap. If we look like we abandoned our ideals, or are not willing to fight for them, then the (Vladimir) Putins of the world will have an easier time.

“But building up the habits and muscles of democracy will take some time.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.