Speaking at the University of Chicago this week, President Barack Obama reminded his audience that we cannot be complacent about the endurance of our institutions and norms. A broad, fact-based consensus, he said, requires work to preserve.
“It’s not self-executing. It’s something that we have to continually nurture, and we have to respond to new circumstances,” Obama said April 6 at UChicago’s David Rubenstein Forum.
Returning to the campus where he once taught, the former president spoke during the keynote conversation at “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy,” a three-day conference co-hosted by the University’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic.
Conversations about these new circumstances—particularly how tech platforms have changed the distribution of information to the public—were held in person and live-streamed to a global audience. The event included appearances by experts and policymakers from around the world, including Obama and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa.
During his conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, Obama admitted that he had underestimated the degree to which democracies were vulnerable to disinformation—including in America. “It’s very difficult to get out of the reality that is constructed for us,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to see how we win the contest of ideas, if in fact we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work.”
In his opening remarks, UChicago President Paul Alivisatos discussed how fitting it was that this conference was being hosted at the University, which fosters free expression and strives to create a community of ideas that preserves the fabric of how we access information and learn.
Reflecting on UChicago’s long history, Alivisatos connected what he now calls the “engaged university” to the ideals that William Rainey Harper had imagined as the University’s founding president.
“He conceived of the University as tied to the fabric of society,” Alivisatos said. “Even as we thought about the deepest and hardest problems that humanity can imagine, at the same time he cared very much about the University being an engaged partner. Today, we have many partner institutions here, and we are grappling with an issue that our global societies all must approach, and on which we have so much to learn.”
The event convened a group of experts—including policymakers, journalists and politicians—to examine the spread of disinformation and strategies to respond to it. Panelists discussed the threats posed by technological advances, the tools and policies required to neutralize them, and the tension between free expression and the need to combat organized disinformation.
Obama noted that while the current ecosystem of social media did not create the divisions in our country, it has exacerbated them and has made democracy more difficult.
“The loss of local journalism, the nationalization of grievance and anger-based journalism, the growth of social media and technology whose product design monetizes anger and resentment—all this undermines our democracy and, if combined with ethno-nationalism, misogyny or racism, can be fatal,” he said.