Barack Obama has made a veiled attack on Donald Trump during a revealing interview with Prince Harry saying the irresponsible use of social media is distorting the public’s understanding of complex issues and leading to the spread of misinformation.
Speaking on Radio 4′s Today programme guest-edited by the Royal on Wednesday morning, the former President said people in a position of power should exercise care when posting messages and current debates around politics in particular are corroding civil discourse.
Obama didn’t mention Trump by name but said social media platforms are distorting the public’s views and leading to a society where “people can have totally different realities... cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases”.
He added: “As a former Constitutional lawyer I’m pretty firm about the merits of free speech and the question I think really has to do with how we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, diversity of views but doesn’t lead to a Balkanisation of our society but rather continues to promote ways of finding common ground.
“I’m not sure Government can legislate that but what I do believe is that all of us in leadership has to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet.”
Since taking office President Trump has used Twitter to launch multiple attacks on politicians, celebrities, the media and even members of the public.
And not forgetting Obama himself...
Obama did acknowledge that most of the toxic debate is happening “outside of Government” and suggested ways to tackle the issue.
He said: “A good way to fight against that is to make sure online communities don’t just stay online, that they move offline.
“Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and get to know each other offline, meet in a pub, a place of worship, a neighbourhood and get to know each other.
“The truth is on the internet everything is simplified and when you meet face to face it turns out they’re complicated. There might be someone you think is diametrically opposed to you when it comes to your political views but you root for the same sports team or you notice that they’re really good parents and you find areas of common ground because you find things aren’t as simple as things are portrayed in chat groups.
“And it’s also harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the internet.”
Obama and the Prince have become close friends after meeting at the Invictus Games but their relationship is reported to be close to sparking a diplomatic crisis over invites to his upcoming wedding to Meghan Markle.
A senior government source told The Sun: “Harry has made it clear he wants the Obamas at the wedding, so it’s causing a lot of nervousness.
“Trump could react very badly if the Obamas get to a Royal wedding before he has had a chance to meet the Queen.”
Prince Harry joined the presenters of the Today programme in the studio and said the issues he had chosen, which included mental health, the charitable sector and the Armed Forces, were “incredibly important topics we all need to think about and need to be discussed”.
Harry was asked about becoming the interviewer rather than being the interviewee, and said: “I haven’t done that many interviews but it was quite fun, especially interviewing president Obama despite the fact he wanted to interview me… it’s been a big learning curve but also these are incredibly important topics we all need to think about and need to be discussed.”
The Prince has commissioned a BBC journalist to look at mental health and the nation’s productivity and there was an item in the programme about the British public’s trust with the charitable sector.
Obama also looked back on the day he handed over power to Trump and despite feeling satisfied he says it was “mixed with all the work that was still undone”.
He added: “Concerns about how the country moves forward but, you know, overall there was serenity there.”
But there was also some hope - Prince Harry asked: “At the end of 2016 many people were relieved it had finished, it was a turbulent year - 2017 hasn’t exactly been easy for the world and many people are worried about the direction the world is headed - can you give a reason for people to feel optimistic for the year ahead?
To which Obama replied: “I don’t think in terms of one year but I can tell people what I genuinely believe which is that if we take responsibility for being involved in our own fate, if we participate, if we engage, if we speak out, if we work in our communities, if we volunteer, if we see the joy that comes from service to others then all the problems we face are solvable.”
They also debated this hot topic.