Obama to leaders: Don't use social media to divide us

During a wide-ranging BBC interview with Britain's Prince Harry, the former US president warns about the dangers of government officials on social media.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
2 min read
Invictus Games Toronto 2017 - Behind The Scenes

Former US President Barack Obama talks about the dangers of social media during a radio interview with Britain's Prince Harry.

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Barack Obama has stern advice for those in powerful positions: Don't use social media to create division.

On Twitter, that would be called a subtweet.

In a BBC interview with Britain's Prince Harry that aired Wednesday the former US president said social media is "corroding civil discourse," reinforcing prejudices and making public conversations more difficult. 

"All of us in leadership positions have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet," he said. "One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases."  

During the interview recorded during the Invictus Games in Toronto in September, Obama didn't specifically mention US President Donald Trump, who is known for his polarizing tweets. However, in respect to free speech, Obama urged leaders to exercise caution in their social media use on sites like Twitter.  

"The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows for a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn't lead to a Balkanization of our society, but rather continues ways to find common ground," he said.

Obama said it's important for people to get offline and actually meet one another in person "because the truth is that on the internet, everything is simplified and when you meet people face to face, it turns out they are complicated." 

When people meet in places like pubs, neighborhoods or places of worships, he said, they find they have more in common. Meeting face to face can lead people to be "less obnoxious and cruel" than they may be on the internet, he said. 

Obama also encouraged young people, who are "the most tolerant, the most tech savvy and the most entrepreneurial," to go beyond just bringing up issues and causes on social media. He wants them to get off the internet and actually help "build up platforms" that create social change in their communities.  

"Make sure that they don't think that just sending out a hashtag in and of itself is bringing about change," he said. "It can be a powerful way to raise awareness, but then you have to get on the ground and actually do something."

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