Former President Obama delivered a speech at Stanford last month that, on the surface, teemed with contradictions. He claimed his speech would outline how to defend democracy, but then proposed limiting the average citizen’s voice. He decried “authoritarianism,” before implying that the American government should manipulate people’s beliefs. When more closely examined, the speech’s contradictions mask a call to change America’s political regime. Obama no longer believes Americans can judge information for themselves and instead advocates for a post-democratic approach to government to ensure progressive outcomes. Or, as he calls it, “making our democracy stronger.”
Obama warned the crowd about the so-called threat of online “disinformation.” He spoke of online users “weaponizing” disinformation to spread their ideas. To the casual observer, Obama’s concern may have seemed well-warranted: no one wants their neighbors to believe lies. But the former President chose his words carefully. For while Obama spoke as if ‘disinformation’ and lies are identical, they aren’t. “Lie” has a clearly understood meaning; ‘disinformation,’ however, is a vague, recently invented academic term. Obama’s vague language was intentional, allowing him to present an ideological agenda of censoring opinions under the guise of a neutral one.
If you’re leaping out of your seat to complain that Obama must have been referencing Russian political interference, hold on. While Russian interference is a legitimate concern for our government to counteract, Obama mostly focused on ‘disinformation’ by Americans. His most notable reference to Russia was his claim that Republicans and Russians both “weaken democratic institutions” using disinformation. The label disinformation is closer to a weapon used to attack one’s political opponents than a neutral label. Democrats have labeled reports of violent protests during 2020, any criticism of the Vice President, and Fox News as disinformation. For the government to ‘regulate’ disinformation, as Obama encourages in his speech, it must assume the power to regulate political debate itself. The progressive freakout over “disinformation” is not in good faith. Rather, it’s an attempt to censor social media feeds to make online discourse more favorable to their ideology.
The graver problem with Obama’s speech, however, was his anti-democratic belief that the average American cannot process the news without supervision. Obama claims he began worrying about disinformation in 2016 when, as he puts it, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump due to “how susceptible [Americans] had become to lies and conspiracy theories.” Democracy — something like majority rule — relies upon citizens to make reasoned political choices by debating political issues and moral values. By blaming Trump’s election on American voters being exposed to “harmful information” online, Obama denies that Americans should have the freedom to independently judge the news they read. Instead, he claimed his fellow citizens need a set of bureaucrats to ensure their social media feeds show them “verified” information. If you do not believe Americans can interpret the news and come to their own political judgements, you do not believe in democracy.
Further frightening is Obama’s logic of why the government should censor social media companies. Obama denies that voters have any agency in how they reach their political beliefs. He even describes political disagreements as resulting from people who “consume different facts and opinions.” To Obama, people are not convinced by moral and theological beliefs; they are instead mere outputs of their social media feeds.
Obama’s logic is frightening when considered in full. Combine his belief that people’s politics are a result of their social media feeds with his proposal for the government to regulate social media feeds. Using the transitive property, Obama’s aim is for the government to influence how people think.
Perhaps Obama’s speech could be excused if he truly believed his own words. Towards the close of a speech on fighting ‘disinformation’ denied that truth is possible. Attempting to end with a rousing call to action, he implored the audience to “fight for the truth.” Then he paused and thought for a moment before adding, “not an absolute truth, not a fixed truth, but...deep down what we know is more true.” Leaving aside the bizarreness of this quote, if you claim to fight lies but deny the possibility of truth, all you have left to enforce is ideology.
The truth is that social media increases, not decreases, people’s knowledge about politics. There is no evidence to support Obama’s fable of the decline and fall of truth in America. To the contrary, research indicates that social media makes people more knowledgeable about politics. Obama simply pines for a utopia where voters naturally agree with his ideology, rather than him having to do the hard work of winning elections by convincing voters. The Biden-Obama approach of censoring social media aspires to change how citizens think, and thus the nation’s politics. The largest threat to democracy may not be coming from Facebook or Twitter, but its loudest ‘supporters.’