Obama hits out at spread of fake news

Earlier this week, Google's top news link for "final election results" of the US election went to a fake news site with false numbers.
Earlier this week, Google's top news link for "final election results" of the US election went to a fake news site with false numbers.SCREENGRAB

In a passionate attack on bogus reports on social media, he says they are a threat to democracy

BERLIN • In his strongest public comments since the election, President Barack Obama sharply criticised the spread of fake news and said President-elect Donald Trump would not remain in office for long if he failed to take the job seriously.

Mr Obama made his remarks at a news conference in Berlin beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of his closest allies in Europe.

Instead of basking in the glow of what was supposed to be his valedictory tour of the continent, Mr Obama used the moment to make a passionate attack on bogus news stories disseminated on social media platforms, twice calling such false reports a threat to democracy in his hour-long news conference.

"Because in an age where there's so much active misinformation and it's packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won't know what to protect," he said.

He also highlighted the potential dangers of false news reports.

"If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems."


Earlier this week, Google's top news link for "final election results" of the US election went to a fake news site with false numbers. SCREENGRAB

Mr Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, recently said fake news on the social network was rare, and dismissed notions that such reports might have swayed the election as "pretty crazy".

But executives and employees at Facebook have been questioning if, or how, the social network helped influence the opinions and votes of Americans, according to interviews with current and former Facebook staff.

TELLING FACT FROM FICTION

If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, on the potential dangers of false news reports.

Bogus news stories appearing online and on social media appear to have had a greater reach in the final months of the campaign than articles by authoritative, mainstream news outlets, according to an analysis of Facebook activity by BuzzFeed.

In the three months before election day, the most popular stories produced by hoax sites and "hyperpartisan blogs" generated more engagement - likes, shares and comments - on Facebook than the most popular articles by major news websites, the analysis found.

Facebook and Google, which has also faced criticism over distribution of fake stories on its platforms, said this week they would take aim at the fake news sites' online sources of revenue.

Microblogging service Twitter also suspended several accounts linked to the alt-right movement, a loosely organised group that embraces far-right ideologies including white nationalism, USA Today reported on Wednesday.

The move followed Twitter's announcement on Tuesday that it would upgrade some features to better combat cyber bullying.

At the news conference, Dr Merkel offered her own warnings about the disruptions associated with digitisation, likening the present period to the social disruptions that occurred during the Industrial Revolution.

Germans have shown deep ambivalence towards social media, worried that global companies fail to respect the country's strict laws protecting personal privacy. Facebook has come under scrutiny from the German government for allowing the spread of hate speech in postings that would be illegal in traditional media.

In his remarks, Mr Obama also warned Mr Trump of the need to take the job of the presidency seriously. "The extraordinary demands that are placed on the United States not just by its own people, but by people around the world, that forces you to focus," Mr Obama said.

"And if you're not serious about the job, then you probably won't be there very long," he added.

Dr Merkel, who was praised by Mr Obama as an "outstanding" ally, said it was difficult to say goodbye to him after their close partnership over the past eight years. She has declined to say whether she will run in a general election next year in which her conservatives are expected to remain the largest bloc in Parliament.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Obama hits out at spread of fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe