Obama calls out Facebook and Google, questions survival of democracy in current political climate

  • Former President Barack Obama lamented the current state of political discourse in the US, saying social-media platforms like Facebook and Google are "shaping our culture in powerful ways."

  • Obama made the off-the-record comments at an MIT conference on Friday.

  • The former president is the highest-profile figure to publicly challenge tech giants to take more responsibility for the effects they have on the social fabric.

Former President Barack Obama made some revealing comments about the current state of political discourse in the US last week, suggesting that tech giants like Facebook and Google are compounding the problem.

His remarks were captured in an off-the-record speech at a sports conference at MIT. Audio from the presentation was first reported by Reason, a libertarian-leaning publication.

Obama spoke on a number of topics at the conference, at one point riffing on how news coverage diverges sharply among competing media outlets — often to the point that the lines between fact and opinion are blurred, and the types of coverage are seemingly governed by ideology rather than the public good.

And he said it's not just about Russian bots and fake news.

"This is Fox News versus The New York Times' editorial page," Obama said. "If you look at these different sources of information, they do not describe the same thing. In some cases, they do not even talk about the same thing."

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Indeed, different news outlets have, at times, taken vastly different approaches to big political stories, perhaps most notably on developments in the Russia investigations.

While commentators on left-leaning media outlets have spent considerable time dissecting the federal probe of Russia's meddling in the 2016 US election, Fox News' opinion programming and other right-leaning publications have leaned toward casting doubt on the investigators themselves.

Obama said social-media platforms like Facebook and Google are exacerbating the problem. Speaking to the power that the tech giants wield over the distribution of online content, Obama said those outlets could do better to acknowledge that they are indeed "shaping our culture in powerful ways."

He called the platforms a "hugely powerful potential force for good," but added that "what's also true is that our social media platforms are just a tool."

"ISIS can use that tool. Neo-Nazis can use that tool," he said.

Speaking of the tech giants, Obama said they "have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise."

In the case of Facebook, that particular comment hits at the heart of one of the social-media giant's most controversial arguments: that it isn't a media company, and that it relies on its algorithms and isn't making editorial decisions about what types of content gets seen on its platform.

Facebook has taken heavy criticism for helping propagate conspiracy theories and fake stories disguised as news, which were amplified in part by the algorithm that Facebook insists establishes the company's neutrality. Some of those algorithms have frequently promoted questionable content more prominently than news from reputable sources.

"It is very difficult to figure out how democracy works over the long term in those circumstances," Obama said.

Listen to the full audio of Obama's speech here»

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