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Former President Obama Calls for More Government Oversight of Social Media

Obama said the internet and social media are 'turbocharging some of humanity's worst impulses'

Former President Barack Obama said that social media has become a threat to democracy and believes that the technology platforms need greater oversight by the government.

On Thursday, while giving a speech about disinformation at Stanford University, Obama said that the internet and social media were “turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses.”

He said he understood not all of the negative impacts were from bad intentions but rather the result of billions of people plugged into a constant stream of information every day. 

“Not all problems we’re seeing now are an inevitable by-product of this new technology. They’re also the result of very specific choices made by the companies that have come to dominate the internet generally and social media platforms in particular,” he said.

He noted that most social media was designed to cause people to stay online longer and driven by technology such as artificial intelligence that did not seek the best results for a person’s well-being. 

He also noted that evolving technology would make it harder for the general public to identify misinformation. 

Obama then pointed to Section 230, a U.S. law that broadly protects tech companies from liability. Under the law, social media companies are free from culpability resulting from users’ posts on their platforms. It also protects companies’ rights to moderate content as they see fit.

“It is clear that tech companies have changed dramatically over the last 20 years and we need to consider reforms to Section 230 to account for those changes,” said Obama.

The former president noted that social media companies should allow regulators to scrutinize their algorithms that promote content.

“In a democracy, we can rightly expect companies to subject the design of their products and services to some level of scrutiny. At minimum they should have to share that information with researchers and regulators who are charged with keeping the rest of us safe,” he said.

During the speech, Obama highlighted various solutions for overcoming disinformation, including more regulation, which tech companies fiercely oppose.

“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 that a good regulatory environment usually ends up spurring innovation, because it raises the bar on safety and quality. And it turns out that innovation can meet that higher bar.”

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