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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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with former United States President Barack Obama at a restaurant during Obama's visit to address the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada June 5, 2017. Picture taken June 5, 2017. Prime Minister's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Britain's Prince Harry (R) and former U.S. President Barack Obama watch a wheelchair basketball event during the Invictus Games in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Former U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he delivers his keynote speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce at the Palais de Congres in Montreal, Quebec, Canada June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Dario Ayala
Sep 28, 2017; Jersey City, NJ, USA; Former U.S. Presidents (from Left) Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton smile during the first round foursomes match of The President's Cup golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Goalkeepers event in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Elizabeth Shafiroff
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and British businessman Richard Branson sit on a boat during Obama's holiday on Branson's Moskito island, in the British Virgin Islands, in a picture handed out by Virgin on February 7, 2017. Jack Brockway/Virgin Handout via REUTERS FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. President Barack Obama attend a discussion at the German Protestant Kirchentag in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Argentina's President Mauricio Macri and former U.S. President Barack Obama walk at a golf course in Bella Vista, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina October 7, 2017. Argentine Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama stands onstage after receiving the 2017 Profile in Courage Award during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Former president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle board Special Air Mission 28000, a Boeing 747 which serves as Air Force One, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Caroline Kennedy presents the 2017 Profile in Courage Award to former U.S. President Barack Obama, as former first lady Michelle Obama looks on, during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets supporters after speaking at a community event on the Obama Presidential Centre at the South Shore Cultural Centre in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former U.S. President Barack Obama (C) meets with youth leaders Kelsey McClear (L) from Loyola University, Ramuel Figueroa (2nd L) from Roosevelt University, pharmacist Dr. Tiffany Brown (3rd L), Max Freedman (3rd R) from University of Chicago, Harish Patel (2ndL) from New America Foundation and Ayanna Watkins (R) from Kenwood High School at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago to discuss strategies for community organization and civic engagement in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with youth leaders at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago to discuss strategies for community organization and civic engagement in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former president Barack Obama reacts after addressing staff and guests before boarding Special Air Mission 28000, a Boeing 747 which serves as Air Force One, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) greets former President Barack Obama after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Former president Barack Obama rallies with New Jersey Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jim Murphy in Newark, New Jersey, U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Makela
U.S. President Barack Obama dances with Jill Biden (2nd L) as Britain's Prince Harry (R) and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) watch a wheelchair basketball event at the Invictus Games in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Former U.S. President Barack Obama accompanied by Melinda and Bill Gates speaks at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Goalkeepers event in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Elizabeth Shafiroff
Former U.S. President Barack Obama visits Prambanan Temple in Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Pius Erlangga
Former United States President Barack Obama (2nd L), his wife Michelle (3rd L) along with his daughters Sasha (C) and Malia (2nd R) go rafting while on holiday in Bongkasa Village, Badung Regency, Bali, Indonesia June 26, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Wira Suryantala/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Indonesian President Joko Widodo are seen during their meeting at the Botanical Garden near the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesia June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adi Weda/Pool
Former United States' President Barack Obama, smiles as he delivers a speech during the Green Economy Summit 2017 in Cordoba province some 740 kilometres Northwestern Buenos Aires, on October 6, 2017. The global fight for clean energy rests with businesses and ordinary people as governments lag behind, experts told an environmental conference in Argentina Friday ahead of a keynote speech by former US president Barack Obama. / AFP PHOTO / Pablo Gasparini (Photo credit should read PABLO GASPARINI/AFP/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Prince Harry, former U.S. President Barack Obama, former Vice President of the U.S. Joe Biden and former second lady of the U.S. Jill Biden pose with competitors from Team USA on day 7 of the Invictus Games 2017 on September 29, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation )
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets members of the public on day 7 of the Invictus Games 2017 on September 29, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation )
JERSEY CITY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 28: Captain's Assistant Tiger Woods of the American Team talks to former President of the United States Barack Obama at the first tee during the first round of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama react to the crowd during an unveiling ceremony for their portraits at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an unveiling ceremony for portraits of himself and former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a Leadership Summit in Delhi, India, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Former U.S. president Barack Obama speaks at a conference during his first visit to France since he left the White House, Paris, France December 2, 2017. The session, organized by an association called "Les Napoleons" is hosted by Orange CEO Stephane Richard. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Former U.S. President Barack Obama reacts during a Leadership Summit in Delhi, India, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Former U.S. President Barack Obama listens to his wife Michelle Obama (unseen) as she speaks during the second day of the first Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Former U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns in support of Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate for governor, at a rally with supporters in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Former President Barack Obama greets supporters after joining New Jersey Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jim Murphy at a rally in Newark, New Jersey U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Makela
Former U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns in support of Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate for governor, at a rally with supporters in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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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»

SEE ALSO: Facebook is under fire after one of its execs railed against the Russia coverage in a tweet that Trump cited

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