Bulletins

Barack Obama: 'People are dying because of misinformation'

He urged changes to Section 230 in a speech that took tech companies to task for allowing lies to spread on their platforms.

President Barack Obama
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Misinformation kills, Barack Obama says, and tech companies, users and lawmakers all have a responsibility to fix it.

"The very design of these platforms seems to be tilting us in the wrong direction," Obama said in a speech at Stanford University Thursday. "And we're seeing the results. The fact that scientists developed safe, effective vaccines in record time is an unbelievable achievement. Yet despite the fact that we know 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."

Misinformation on platforms have caused people to lose their ability to distinguish between fact, opinion and "wholesale fiction," Obama said, and while platforms have implemented some measures to moderate content and add friction, tech companies alone shouldn't decide how to tackle harmful content.

"These companies are still way too guarded about how exactly their standards operate or how their engagement ranking systems influence what goes viral, and what doesn't," Obama said.

"These platforms need to be subjected to some level of public oversight and regulation."

Obama, using harsher language than he has in the past, pressed tech companies to become more transparent with their algorithms and pushed for changes to Section 230. He doesn't think the law, which limits the legal liability of tech platforms for the content published on them, should be repealed entirely, but it should be reformed to account for the changes platforms have gone through over the past couple decades. He called for the act to require a "higher standard of care" when it comes to advertising.

"Let's face it, these platforms are not like your old phone company," Obama said.

Lawmakers are currently working to reform Sec. 230 with a bill that would force large tech platforms to face consequences if their algorithms drive real-world harm.

He also addressed the harms of maximizing engagement on social media platforms in the name of ad revenue. Obama blamed tech platforms for accelerating the decline of traditional media, saying newsrooms have been forced to adapt to fast-paced platforms while facing increased pressure to monetize there.

"As more ad revenue flows to the platforms that disseminate the news, rather than money going to the newsrooms ... publishers reporters and editors all feel the pressure to maximize engagement," he said.

One of Obama's key proposals was that platforms open up about their algorithms. He said the problem with online disinformation isn't only the content posted, but the way platforms amplify it: "Algorithms have gotten to the point where nobody on the outside of these companies can accurately predict what they'll do."

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Bulletins