When the world feels like absolute chaos we tend to look to our leaders - Presidents, Prime Ministers, etc - to help ground us and show us a path forward.
This week I was in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time since the pandemic to see friends and former co-workers. I just happened to be heading to Stanford on the day President Obama gave his speech on disinformation and tech.
As I sat in the parking lot of the Town and Country Village shopping mall off of El Camino listening to the President I actually kept thinking back 40 years - to President Reagan’s 1982 speech to Westminster.
Why you might ask? That’s the speech that kicked off a new era of democracy-building by the United States. In that speech, Reagan set out “to determine how the United States can best contribute as a nation to the global campaign for democracy now gathering force.”
My brain went to that speech because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cultural shift we need to think about both democracy building - and protecting - in the digital age. I feel like we need one because we aren’t in a period now where we’re just trying to build democracies, but we have to stop the backsliding. We have to make sure we are addressing not just what is happening on the ground, but what is happening online as well.
So, later that night I sat down with a glass of wine and did what any political dork does and pulled up a YouTube video of President Reagan’s speech. It was uncanny how many of the things he said you could easily say again about where we are today. Phrases such as:
Optimism comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous, but because democracy's enemies have refined their instruments of repression.
The gifts of science and technology have made life much easier for us, they have also made it more dangerous. There are threats now to our freedom, indeed to our very existence, that other generations could never even have imagined.
Well, this is precisely our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace. It may not be easy to see; but I believe we live now at a turning point.
How we conduct ourselves here in the Western democracies will determine whether this trend continues.
No, democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.
We ask only for a process, a direction, a basic code of decency, not for an instant transformation.
Well, the task I've set forth will long outlive our own generation. But together, we too have come through the worst. Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best -- a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.
I found myself more energized by Reagan’s speech about the challenges facing us today than I did by President Obama’s. Reagan’s didn’t just lay out the challenges in front of us but also gave us an action plan of what he was going to do to help solve them. Now, what Reagan proposed in 1982 isn’t something I think would necessarily work in today’s political climate - a bipartisan study with the chairs of the two political parties working together to build a democracy program - but it was something actionable, something that lives on today.
Now, I’m glad President Obama wants to use his platform to help on this issue. While some may say it’s all too little too late I hate that criticism of people. The more serious people we have wanting to spend time on these challenges the better. However, I wanted more out of his speech. This is a man who spent eight years making some of the hardest calls in the world. He knows what it’s like to weigh impossible tradeoffs. I would have liked him to say how he would have handled some of the decisions that have been put on the tech CEOs over the last decade.
Moreover, I wish he would have expanded more on what he personally would have done differently. He glossed over so much about the 2016 election and what was or wasn’t released about what Russia was doing. I certainly hope we’ll get more out of book two on this than we got in this speech.
We can learn so much from looking back on the past. Zeynep Tufekci - per usual - had a fantastic Twitter thread about this and the challenges she faced from the Obama administration ten years ago when she was sounding the alarm about the dangers of the Internet and they weren’t having any of it. My favorite tweet is this one:
“Groupthink, especially when big interests are involved, is common. The job is to resist groupthink with facts, logic, work, and a sense of duty to the public. History rewards that, not contrarianism.”
I’m very much worried we are in groupthink again. President Obama’s speech was mostly just a new way of saying ideas that others have already put out there. Some of those ideas are great. Some aren’t in my POV, but there was nothing original. There was a paltry call to arms for employees and companies to “do the right thing.” I just found myself getting angrier and angrier wanting to ask him how he’d draw those lines and how he’d measure if a proposal touching social media “strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy, inclusive democracy.”
If we’re going to find a way forward we need to get into those hard details. The areas I’m sure President Obama didn’t want to get into because they are politically fraught. He would open himself up to criticism. But we need people like him who have these decision-making and reasoning skills to do so.
More than that we need help from our elected leaders to take what President Reagan built 40 years ago and adapt it to the needs of today. I’m guessing this is what President Biden was hoping the Summit for Democracy would do - and maybe it will - but to be honest I have a hard time understanding what exactly the workstreams from this are.
I also want to see Republicans stand up and be a part of this. President Biden should ask Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama to lead up a new effort. Include Senators from both parties that are on the boards of the NED, IRI, and NDI. Bring in people from tech and stop pointing fingers at one another and actually start having our leaders work together.
Now, I know I’m asking for a unicorn that farts rainbows and flowers. But, where else can a girl dream if not on her own substack? Besides, while we were getting speeches in the United States in Europe, they were actually doing something when the EU late last night agreed on the broad terms of the Digital Services Act.
New Yorker: How Democracies Spy on Their Citizens
Rest of World: A Twitter takeover would be a global headache for Elon Musk
MIT Technology Review: Artificial intelligence is creating a new colonial world order
Washington Post: Can technology bring Vladimir Putin to justice?
Financial Times: EU to unveil law to force Big Tech to police illegal content
Barack Obama: Disinformation and Democracy Reading List
Atlantic Council: China's discourse power operations in the Global South
Freedom House: From Democratic Decline to Authoritarian Aggression
Haidt, J., & Bail, C. (2022): Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Review
Belogolova Georgetown Class Reading List: Lies, Damned Lies and Disinformation
Jigsaw: Conspiracy Theories
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
April 24 - 27 - Public Affairs Council’s Advocacy Conference in Austin, TX
May 3 - Ohio Primary (Open Senate race)
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
September 28 - 30: Athens Democracy Forum
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms