The former president never mentioned President Donald Trump by name during the BBC Radio 4 news program that aired on Wednesday, December 27, but he spoke of the dangers of leaders not using the internet to unify the people. The British royal, 33, brought up the issue of trolling, fake news and extremism on social media and asked what Obama thinks he could’ve done as president to solve those issues.
“Most of this is happening outside of government. In the United States, in particular, we have a very strong First Amendment. I’m pretty firm about the merit of free speech,” he said. “The question 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 Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.”
Obama said now that everyone has access to various news outlets, people have a different set of facts unlike in the past when everyone had access to the same base information. “What I do believe is all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet,” the former president continued. “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 Trump’s presidency and throughout his campaign, he has been heavily criticized for his tweets, including one instance where he retweeted anti-Muslim videos in November. Trump has also shown constant support for Fox News, while bashing The New York Times and CNN, often referring to the latter two as “fake news.”
Obama, 56, also said that it’s important for people who interact online to also be able to connect in person and to realize they might share some common ground with one another. “Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and get to know each other and connect, but then it’s important for them to get offline, meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighborhood and get to know each other,” he said. “Because the truth is that on the internet, everything is simplified, and when you meet people face-to-face, it turns out they’re complicated.”
He added: “It’s also harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the internet.”
Prince Harry also asked Obama about wearing his heart on his sleeve during his presidency, which the royal said isn’t a usual trait for political leaders. Obama said: “I did not think I could do my job well — and I actually don’t believe any leader can do their job well — if they don’t have the capacity to feel deeply about the people they are serving.”
He added: “I think the great danger that often befalls leaders is that the people that they’re supposed to be serving become abstractions, and they’re not abstractions.”
“If you don’t understand that what you do every day has a profound impact on somebody else, you shouldn’t be there,” Obama concluded.
The former president has not made many public appearances since leaving the White House in January, and his interview with Prince Harry, which took place in September, is Obama’s first since ending his second term as president.