Obama talks social media with Prince Harry
Obama is interview by Prince Harry. Photo: Getty Images

During the September Invictus Games in Toronto, Prince Harry put Former President Barack Obama in the hot seat as a guest editor on BBC Radio 4. They talked about his hopes for the future, his post-presidental life and the Obama Foundation, but the full interview wasn’t released until December 27.

 

BBC previously released a sneak peak of when the two met up to conduct the interview.

 

The power figures shared dialogue for almost 40 minutes that included a conversation about social media and the Internet's divisive, overarching influence on how we consume information and communicate.

 

Prince Harry pointed out that the social media landscape has changed dramatically since Obama was elected with the increase of trolling, cyber bullying, extremism and fake news, asking: "Is there more you could have done as president to get ahead of these issues?"

Obama said that most of this has happened "outside of government" and that he’s "pretty firm about the merits of free speech."

"The question," he argued, "really has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn't lead to a Balkanisation of our society, but rather continues to promote ways of finding common ground, and I’m not sure government can legislate that."

"But what I do believe is that all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the Internet," Obama continued.

He went on to discuss how, nowadays, the news we read and the information we consume can often discard facts and keep us in the dark about important truths. We often times consume what validates our own beliefs. "It used to be in the United States — at least for example — we had three television stations…everybody had a common set of facts, and so there might be conservatives and liberals, but people generally could agree on a baseline of reality," Obama said. "One of the dangers of the Internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases."

To fight against this, he stressed the importance of moving the conversation offline to convene in person. "The truth is, on the Internet, everything is simplified, and when you meet people face to face, it turns out they’re complicated," he stated.

When you’re browsing online, reading extensive political rants and targeted 140 character tweets, all you see are those words, as opposed to the faces behind them. "There may be somebody that you think is diametrically opposed to you when it comes to their political views, but you root for the same sports team," Obama elaborated. "Or you notice that they’re really good parents and that’s something that you as a parent care about, and you find areas of common ground because you see that things aren’t as simple as had been portrayed..."

"It’s also, by the way, harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person," he added, as people can be from behind a screen. Some are suggesting that this could have been a jab at Trump’s unfiltered, arguably irresponsible use of social media, but the former president doesn’t mention him specifically during the interview.

Obama concluded the Internet discussion by talking about his hopes for the younger generation — that they'll use social media as a starting point to organize change, but won't rely on it as not a sole tool because action cannot happen through organized chat rooms and Twitter feeds alone. "One of the things we want to do as we’re working with young people to build up platforms for social change, [is to] make sure that they don’t think just sending out a hashtag in of itself is bringing about change," he stated. "It can be a powerful way to raise awareness, but then you have to get on the ground, and you actually have to do something."

Listen to the full interview as a podcast here.

Previous warnings

This wasn’t the first time Obama addressed the topic of social media. According to USA TODAY, at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi, he elaborated on his wife’s advice she'd given during an Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago this year. She’d said: "You don’t tweet every thought…And I’m not talking about anybody in particular. I’m talking about us all because everybody does that."

"Michelle was giving the general idea ... that don’t say the first thing that pops in your head," Obama told his audience. "Have a little bit of an edit function ... think before you speak, think before you tweet."