Stanford: Obama’s next stop on his campaign against disinformation

April 21, 2022, 1:55 a.m.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver a keynote address at Stanford on the rising threat of disinformation and challenges to democracy in the digital era this Thursday.

Obama, who has spent much of the past year warning the public of the danger of misinformation and disinformation, is expected to advocate in favor of regulating online public discourse and other strategies for responding to the organized spread of disinformation.

At the event, hosted by the Cyber Policy Center, Obama will address Stanford academic leaders and policy experts, in addition to a handful of students who had the chance to enter their names in a lottery. 

Obama’s Thursday speech marks the latest stop on his recent bid — including an April 6 interview at the University of Chicago — to explain the threat of disinformation and explore how it can be countered.

“The way I define disinformation is if you have a systematic effort to either promote false information or to suppress true information for the purpose of political gain, financial gain and suppressing others,” Obama said at the University of Chicago.

When Obama arrives on campus, he will encounter a Stanford community far different from the last time he visited — his most recent appearance came in June 2016, when the then-president gave an address on diversity in entrepreneurship and moderated a panel that included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

This time around, Obama will broach a topic deeply woven into the technology scene that backgrounds the Stanford community and its work. In the wake of the aftermath of the 2020 election, experts in democracy have increasingly advocated for private powers in the cyber-market to take firm action against disinformation campaigns to safeguard democracy.

Though Obama returns to Stanford as a former president, Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote that the University has implemented strict security precautions for Thursday’s event.

“High-profile individuals routinely visit our campus, and we are taking all appropriate safety measures,” Miranda wrote. “We look forward to welcoming former President Obama to Stanford.”

Global Digital Policy Incubator Executive Director Eileen Donahoe, who served as the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, said that Obama’s visit to Stanford follows naturally from the Obama Foundation’s core values.

“The Obama Foundation mission is to cultivate young leaders,” Donahoe wrote in an email. “Stanford is a natural place to find potential partners for that mission.”

Donahoe, who will serve as a panel moderator during the event, expressed her fear that authoritarians and aspiring authoritarians have been far quicker to seize upon the digital revolution “to solidify state control” than democratic governments have been to navigate how this new “techno-social system” relates to the trust people hold in the democratic process.

“The digital transformation of society has dramatically altered the context for governance,” Donahoe wrote. “While authoritarians have figured out how to capitalize on data and digital tools to solidify state control at home and to undermine democratic processes abroad, democratic governments have been less certain about how technology can serve democratic aims.” 

Donahoe warned that authoritarians and advocates of such regimes have exploited “systemic cyber vulnerabilities” in democratic nations to erode public confidence “in the ability of the government to protect citizens.”

Still, she hopes that Obama’s speech to current and future tech leaders will help highlight the role that public and private actors must play in “creating a digital information realm that supports democracy and civic engagement.”

Jed Ngalande '23 is the politics and government beat reporter for The Daily's news section. Contact him at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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