Obama: Social media is isolating and dividing Americans

Former U.S. President Barack Obama said the Internet and social media has helped isolate the American people and aided in perpetuating their own views, regardless of whether they’re true.

“With the proliferation of the Internet and Facebook…people have gotten even more stuck in their own narrow biases,” he said during Signal, Twilio’s developer conference, on Thursday. “One of the things we’re going to have to figure out is how do we rediscover some common culture when you’ve got a bazillion websites and 100 channels?”

Obama said he’s concerned with the “splintering” of U.S. media that has created alternate realities for different Americans depending on what they watch and read. The problem is amplified by social media and other websites, he said. 

The comments come during a contentious election year, when presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump—along with their respective parties—have become increasingly divided. Meanwhile, social media services like Facebook and Twitter have come under fire from both sides of the aisle for what they allow politicians to post on their services or say in ads. Posts disseminating misinformation, conspiracy theories, and attempts to suppress voters have permeated services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Obama said he’s concerned that society is losing an understanding of truth and facts. He said once people have fallen into their own perceived reality, it’s hard for them to break out of that to see the fuller picture.

“Everyone wants to believe what they want to believe,” he said, before evoking the late U.S. Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Although Obama criticized Internet services for fueling division, he also suggested that they have created more opportunities for people to access information. He also said that if used properly, social media networks can serve as valuable tools to better inform people and create more understanding and less division. 

“The virtual world works best when it translates into action and activity and conversation and face-to-face interactions in the real world,” he said. “That forces you to see people in their complexity.”

Obama said his presidential campaign used tools like social network Myspace and the event planning service Meetup to organize volunteers around the country and get people together for face-to-face conversations. It’s something he says helps change Internet services from possible sources of isolation to tools that can form in-person communities.

“I continue to believe the Internet and social media are hugely powerful tools to build communities across boundaries and borders,” he said. “But I think it’s very important for us to break down the wall where we think there’s a virtual world and a real world.”

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