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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Barack Obama warns of social media dangers – but avoids mentioning Trump

Former president says leaders have a responsibility to prevent the ‘Balkanisation’ of the internet

Barack Obama mentioned climate change, healthcare and social media but not Donald Trump in an interview with Britain's Prince Harry (BBC Radio 4 Today/PA via AP)
Barack Obama mentioned climate change, healthcare and social media but not Donald Trump in an interview with Britain's Prince Harry (BBC Radio 4 Today/PA via AP)

Former US president Barack Obama said that leaders had a responsibility to prevent acrimonious division within society by promoting the responsible use of social media.

Mr Obama’s comments on the topic will be seen as a veiled criticism of his successor and keen user of Twitter, Donald Trump.

Mr Trump has used the social media platform to promote his agenda and criticise his opponents. He has been accused of bolstering the support of a British far-right group by retweeting its messages about militant Islam.

Mr Obama did not mention Mr Trump in the BBC interview but talked about his plans for the long-term campaign against climate change and his pride in his US healthcare reforms, both programmes that his successor has pledged to roll back.

He admitted to concerns about how the US moved forward but said there was a “serenity” on handing over power to Mr Trump.

Mr Obama – described as the first social media president for harnessing young activists to drive him to electoral success – said he was opposed to any form of regulation of the internet despite a changing technological landscape and the rise of cyber-bullying, trolling and fake news.

“I don’t want to live in a world where the state is making the decisions about who says what,” he said in an interview with Prince Harry, the fifth in line to the British throne.

“The question I think really 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 Balkanisation of our society, but continues to find ways to find common ground,” he said in a rare interview after he stepped down from power in January.

“All of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet.”

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Mr Trump has used the term “fake news” to hit back at criticisms of his administration and policies. Mr Obama said in previous days of three main television networks in the United States, everyone had a common set of facts even if they disagreed with them.

“One of the dangers of the internet, people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reflects their current biases,” he said.

He also highlighted the limitations of social media, saying that everything was simplified online. “It’s harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the internet,” he added.

Mr Obama – who said some of his predecessors as president had been heroic while others had “screwed up” - likened his time as an eight-year president as a relay runner handing on the baton and said that he had “run a good race”.

Mr Obama said the biggest mistakes made by those in power was that the people they served became abstractions. “If you don’t understand that what you do has a profound impact on somebody else then you shouldn’t be there.”