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Barack Obama preaches about Big Tech becoming too powerful. Is anyone listening?

April 22, 2022, 5:11 PM UTC

Professor Obama has entered the chat on Big Tech and misinformation. Fortunately for Silicon Valley’s social media giants, he’s a poor messenger with an uninspiring message.

In a lecturous speech delivered Thursday at Stanford University, the 44th president succeeded in the facile task of diagnosing the cause and effect of our poisonous social media ecosystem. But the former commander-in-chief fell short in prescribing realistic remedies for the problem or acknowledging his role in fomenting this divisive moment in time, rendering him an ineffective champion for reform.

For the better part of an hour, Obama made a measured case for overhauling our increasingly online social landscape, arguing that it has contributed to the modern era of divisiveness. He acknowledged the inevitable fraying of an instantaneously plugged-in society, while fairly taking aim at corporations exploiting our weakest impulses by amplifying conflict in pursuit of ad dollars.

“Our brains aren’t accustomed to taking in this much information this fast, and a lot of us are experiencing overload,” Obama told the crowd. “But not all problems we’re seeing now are a by-product of this new technology. They’re also the result of very specific choices made by the companies that have come to dominate the internet generally and social media platforms in particular. Decisions that, intentionally or not, have made democracies more vulnerable.”

Obama proceeded to list several results of this phenomenon: heightened political polarization, declining trust in elite institutions, proliferation of false and misleading information, the erosion of local media, among others. 

On these points, the lawyerly former president makes a pretty unimpeachable, if unoriginal, case.

Then Obama arrived at potential solutions for our online ills. Here, he largely receded to empty platitudes, vague statutory changes, and rosy pleas for harmony. 

He called for reforms to federal code that would force tech companies to abide by a “higher standard of care when it comes to advertising on their site.” Whatever that means.

He said social media platforms should have to share information about their products and designs with researchers and regulators “who are charged with keeping the rest of us safe.” As if America trusts those two groups to protect our interests.

He made a feeble plea to tech executives and employees, telling them, “You’ll still make money, but you’ll feel better” if you just “do the right thing.” What is this, kindergarten?

Obama did make reference to two specific pieces of legislation, Congress’ Platform Accountability and Transparency Act and the European Union’s Digital Services Act, but he spent three sentences on the bills and didn’t exactly endorse either.

The speech adds up to a safe exploration of our online environment. Which would be fine enough if Obama’s voice alone added some much-needed urgency to these issues.

But Obama lost that pulpit over the past decade. 

As president, he famously cozied up to Silicon Valley, fostering its ascendance through a feather-light regulatory, antitrust, and legislative touch. He failed to foresee how the online platforms that enabled his meteoric rise—namely, Facebook—would destabilize democracy. His eight years in office coincided with the decay of civility he now laments (though I’d argue social media, partisan hackery, gerrymandering, and the Trump administration deserve more blame than him).

Time out of office hasn’t made America’s heart grow fonder for Obama, either. Today, many Republicans still view him as a standard-bearer of the anti-Trump resistance, particularly as he continues to emphasize the debatable impact of Russia’s disinformation campaign in the 2016 presidential election. Some Democrats, meanwhile, now label him insufficiently progressive for the political moment, an image reinforced by Obama’s more-moderate tone on social justice matters and his post-presidency embrace of elite circles.

The U.S. undoubtedly benefits from more dialogue on the immense power wielded by Silicon Valley. It just needs better ideas delivered by leaders with less baggage. Until that happens, Big Tech shouldn’t worry too much about losing its standing to Washington.

Think Obama is a strong advocate for tech reform? Agree that he’s a misguided messenger? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

A change in direction. Netflix plans to emphasize quality over quantity with its content production moving forward after a devastating earnings report sent the streaming giant’s stock spiraling this week, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. In interviews and internal statements, Netflix executives said they plan to spend more money on television and movie production this year, but budgets will receive closer scrutiny and fewer projects will get the green light. Netflix’s share price is down 69% from its all-time high in November 2021, as investors fret over a slowdown in subscriber growth.

EU goes 2-for-2. The European Union is finalizing new, landmark regulations that would force large tech companies to remove more content, disclose more information about their platforms, and reduce targeted advertising, the New York Times reported Friday. The Digital Services Act arrives one month after EU officials reached an agreement on a complementary law, known as the Digital Markets Act, which aimed to halt anticompetitive practices by top tech firms. Supporters of the two bills argue the legislation will curb the power of Big Tech and create a healthier online ecosystem, while opponents fear the acts will harm digital economies and result in uneven enforcement.

A confusing quarter. Snap shares jumped around Friday, landing unchanged in midday trading, following a mixed earnings report, CNBC reported. The social media company narrowly missed profit and revenue estimates, with executives citing economic pressures and volatility in digital advertising markets as top hurdles. Snap still reported better-than-expected daily user growth, which rose 18% year over year, and issued an updated forecast showing stronger second-quarter revenue projections.

Ready to sell? Toshiba disclosed plans Thursday to seek buyout offers amid pressure from top investors, an announcement that sent its Japan-listed shares up 5%, Reuters reported. The electronics conglomerate said it has hired a financial adviser to explore a potential sale to private buyers, a move that top company executives have resisted in recent months. Several of Toshiba’s largest investors are pushing for a sale amid frustrations with stagnant growth and management issues at the company.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In need of direction. Antsy employees and investors are increasingly wondering if Meta is headed for a Yahoo-like free fall, Insider reported Thursday. As confusion mounts over Meta’s long-term plans, internal and external skeptics fear the company’s pivot to the nebulous metaverse could backfire on the Facebook and Instagram parent. Meta’s augmented and virtual reality division ran a $10 billion loss in 2021, with no clear path to immediate profitability. As one industry veteran told Insider, Meta has the money and the moxie to stake its future on the metaverse—but executives “can’t be wrong.” 

From the article:

Inside the company, staff are concerned these new bets won’t lead to a better business, according to interviews with 10 current and former employees. Those in the moneymaking parts of the business have also felt confused about their direction since Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta in October, these people said. The company has responded by creating a high-level team to better communicate its metaverse ambitions internally, Insider has learned.

“There’s still not much to touch or look at, much less use, for all of its metaverse proclamations,” a former employee said.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Big Tesla investors fear that Elon Musk’s Twitter bid will make them unwilling shareholders in his new X Holdings conglomerate, by Christiaan Hetzner

Meet the Phoenix Ghost, a secretive new drone the U.S. fast-tracked for delivery to Ukraine, by Eamon Barrett

Will Blockchain.com break open the public markets for crypto companies?, by Declan Harty

Russia just retaliated against the U.S. by sanctioning Mark Zuckerberg and Kamala Harris, by Jonathan Vanian

Northwestern Mutual CEO advises business leaders: ‘Embrace the A.I. change,’ by Susie Gharib and Stephen Merenes

Elon Musk says he wants Twitter to be a free-speech bastion, but his companies have a long history of silencing critics, by Dana Hull, Sarah Frier, Maxwell Adler, and Bloomberg

BEFORE YOU GO

Learn from the best. Break out the silver, because Fortune is celebrating a 25th anniversary. Our annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list arrived this month, marking a quarter-century of honoring outfits that receive top marks from employees and analysts. To note the occasion, the CEOs of Fortune and Great Place to Work will host a virtual conversation at 1 p.m. Monday with the leaders of Target, Hilton, Cisco, and Accenture—each of which ranked among the top 12. They’ll discuss their approaches to employee relations, engaging with workers, and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The free event is open to all, with registration available here.

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