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Former President Barack Obama Visits Stanford

Rachel Kim and Lena Han at Obama Event

By Lena Han and Rachel Kim, 2022

“The stakes are enormous,” former President Obama warned, citing interference in the 2016 presidential election and vaccine misinformation as just two examples of attacks on democracy. On April 21, 2022  the former president visited Stanford University as the keynote speaker for at a one-day symposium co-hosted by the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm.”

In between jokes about his daughters teaching him the basic functions of a smartphone, President Obama provided three components to addressing the challenge. First, he spoke about the need for technology companies, such as Google and Meta, to take greater responsibility for the content on their website. Second, he also acknowledged the government’s role in adapting to the dramatic changes in technology and its role in society, advocating for reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which generally provides immunity for website platforms with respect to third-party content.

“Regulation does not have to stifle innovation,” he said, speaking about government regulation’s ability to impose higher standards on the private sector to spur innovation.

Finally, he provided a personal call to action for consumers to break outside of their information bubble. It was a suggestion that certainly resonated with me—it is so easy to consume information passively, scrolling through Twitter or scanning the New York Times headline alerts, rather than actively searching for multiple perspectives on today’s salient issues. When President Obama called attention to the ways in which modern media has contributed to how “our personal information bubbles, our assumptions, our blind spots, [and] our prejudices aren’t challenged,” I (Rachel) was reminded of a classroom discussion on confirmation bias and naïve realism in Professor Paul Brest’s class, “Problem Solving and Decision Making for Public Policy and Social Change,” which I took as part of my Public Policy Master’s curriculum. Listening to President Obama’s speech and reflecting on what I learned in Professor Brest’s class encouraged me to re-evaluate how my own method of media consumption may affect my views and the types of political dialogue in which I engage.

Obama added “the internet is a tool. Social media is a tool. At the end of the day, tools don’t control us. We control them. And we can remake them. It’s up to each of us to decide what we value and then use the tools we’ve been given to advance those values.”

In a crowd of excited students, faculty, and community members, the energy in the air was as electrifying as the speech itself. Stanford certainly sees no shortage of accomplished speakers, but there still was an awed air of “that’s Obama!” Students began lining up outside CEMEX for entry two hours before the start of the event, hoping to catch a seat closer to the former President. The audience, which included President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, several Vice Provosts, and faculty across campus, remained rapt, only pausing their listening to snap an excited picture of the event. After the event, students waited outside to catch one more glimpse of the former President as he entered his car and was driven away.