Internet

Obama: Social media explosion has given power to the powerless

When President Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came into power, the mobile Internet and social media were still in their infancy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Thanks to phones and social media, a lot has changed since President Obama's election eight years ago.

Obama, making his final speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, reflected on the progress that's been made on global issues during his presidency, from pulling the nation out of the 2008 financial crisis to pushing for attention on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation. In spite of extremist and sectarian violence throughout the world, he urged world leaders to forge a path "forward instead of backward."

That path forward, he noted, ties into the role that technology and the internet have played in empowering average citizens. When Obama took office in 2009, the original iPhone had just launched 18 months earlier and Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy. Instagram and WhatsApp didn't exist. Now these services are powerful enough to foster a revolution and enlighten anyone with a simple connection.

President Barack Obama addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations for the eighth and final time on September 20, 2016.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"The Internet can deliver the entirety of human knowledge to a young girl in a remote village on a single handheld device," Obama said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also took the stage at the General Assembly for the last time before he steps down at the end of this year, reflected in his speech on the rise of mobile devices and social media.

"Smartphones ... are a lifeline and at times the bane of our existence," he said. "Phones and social media have connected the world in ways that were unimaginable when I took office."

Over the past eight years, phones and social media helped protesters organize during the Arab Spring, which saw revolutions and civil unrest explode in a dozen nations, helped refugees flee Syria after its civil war and helped cast a spotlight on racial tensions in the US.

It hasn't been all positive. Obama noted that terrorist networks have used social media "to prey upon the minds of our youth."

But ultimately, he lauded the benefits that come with our more connected society.

"An explosion of social media," Obama said, "has given ordinary people more ways to express themselves and has raised people's expectations for those of us in power."