Former President Barack Obama is thinking about media’s impact on society and democracy.
Obama spoke at the annual Democracy Forum in Chicago sponsored by the Obama Foundation. The room was full of young activists and organizers. And, with the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas, he was thoughtful about the growing strife between American political parties.
“I’ve had discussions with young politicians and media figures,” Obama said, choosing his words carefully. The question he was coming to: “How do we balance this idea of diversity? We each have our own identities. We each have our own stories. We understand the power of narratives. And I think this generation in particular very much wants to talk about who’s controlling the narrative.”
The narrative, his story, their story, our story — was on everyone’s mind.
“Here’s the good news,” Obama proposed. “I think people are starting to instinctively understand that the level of polarization that we’re at right now is not helping anybody, except maybe some talking heads, and folks on TikTok — who are monetizing it, by the way. So people kind of sense this isn’t healthy, but we don’t know how to get out of it.”
Social media came of age under Obama’s watch, and he thinks back on that with honest concern. He told a recent gathering at The Atlantic: “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
So where does that leave us? “We’re too comfortable right now with the idea that the other side are idiots and hateful and can’t be reasoned with. We’re a little too comfortable right now with that idea,” said the 44th President of the United States.
“You know a lot of that is around competing narratives. The question is, how do we then take that understanding that everybody’s stories matter? That we can’t just look at the world through one lens. How do we do that and then still find the possibility of finding common ground, and then still aspire to understanding and empathy and collaboration? ” Obama asked the question he was clearly thinking about.
Right now, “we really don’t hear each other. We really don’t see each other,” he pondered. “And if we can’t break through that, then we’ll never get to all the wonderful ideas and amazing projects that are out there.”
His talk was a flash back to the concerns he raised in another discussion, at Stanford in 2022: “Inside our personal information bubbles, our assumptions, our blind spots, our prejudices aren’t challenged, they are reinforced — and naturally, we’re more likely to react negatively to those consuming different facts and opinions. All of which deepens existing racial and religious and cultural divides.”
Obama also seems to have misinformation, AI, and deep fakes on his mind: “For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the internet. … No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions and subtle manipulations.”