On Wednesday, former President Obama spoke to newly engaged Prince Harry about the chaotic new social media climate and the problem of policing fake news and hateful speech online. And, as a Kenyan-born secret Muslim crypto-anarchist, he certainly knows a lot about combatting fake news.
A pillar of President Trump’s radical deregulation crusade has been casting Obama’s term as an aberration of bloated, overzealous government regulation. From Net Neutrality to the Paris Agreement, Trump scored major victories among his base by reversing regulation in the name of “freedom.” But speaking for himself in his first broadcast interview since Trump’s ascent, Obama’s stance on regulating speech online is decidedly centrist. Taking a position largely in line with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Cloudflare’s Matthew Prince, Obama suggested online speech is dangerous, but overregulation can be disastrous.
“I am, as a former constitutional lawyer, pretty firm about the merits of free speech,” Obama said during the interview broadcast on BBC’s Radio 4. “And the question, I think, really has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voice, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a balkanization in our society, but rather continues to promote ways of finding common ground.”
As Facebook’s Russia scandal metastasized to congressional proportions and companies like Cloudflare and Go Daddy faced political pressure to take down neo-Nazis online, the conversation around internet speech in 2017 sketched two broad, divergent stances: either organizing bodies should step in to regulate speech or they shouldn’t.
Referencing Walter Kronkite and the days before the 24-hour news cycle, Obama said organizing bodies and regulators should instead focus on educating people and rebuilding the analog environment where “everyone had a common set of facts.” Obama told Prince Harry that a middle ground, built on education, is the only viable way to counter deleterious speech—be it fake news or hate speech—without ceding control to governing bodies.
“I’m not sure government can legislate that,” he said. “What I do believe is all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can re-create a common space on the internet.”
We may be aware that online echo chambers are harmful, but they aren’t illegal. And any top-down solution to the internet’s algorithmic filter bubbles requires purposefully altering what people see to expose them to things they don’t like. Rather than trying to solve these problems through intervention—which requires giving a lot of power to the government or individual companies to decide what we see—Obama suggested platforms should instead educate people and build that common space.
“I’m big on education,” Obama said. “The notion that we are gonna be able to corral, that were gonna be able to contain, what’s said and what’s not on the internet is unachievable and contrary to the values of an open society that both the United States and Great Britain and most of the advanced world adheres to.”
Freedom of speech, ill-defined and unsatisfying as it is, is essential to democracy. And while Obama’s centrism here recalls the same “content neutrality” that led to Silicon Valley dragging its feet during the Russia and neo-Nazi scandals, Obama is right to be cautious about the state’s role in solving them.
“I don’t want to live in a world in which the state is making the decisions about who says what,” he said.