As David Letterman’s first Netflix guest, Barack Obama warns against the ‘bubble’ of social media
David Letterman seems to be taking the title of his new Netflix show very seriously: On the very first episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, he’s joined by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
The episode has plenty of funny moments, like Obama ribbing Letterman about his nearly Biblical beard. But they cover substantive political topics, too — not just during the onstage interview, but also in Letterman’s walk across Selma’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis.
In fact, Letterman seems to be treating the new show as an opportunity to move a little bit away from his usual sardonic style and offer more depth and seriousness. He ended the interview by telling Obama, “Without a question of a doubt, you are the first president I really and truly respect.”
On the tech front, Obama repeated some of the points he made in a recent BBC interview with the U.K.’s Prince Harry. After being asked about threats to our democracy, Obama warned against “getting all your information off algorithms being sent through a phone.”
He noted that he owes much of his own political success to social media, which helped him build “what ended up being the most effective political campaign, probably in modern political history.” So he initially had “a very optimistic feeling” about the technology, but he said, “I think that what we missed was the degree to which people who are in power … special interests, foreign governments, etc., can in fact manipulate that and propagandize.”
Obama then recounted a science experiment (“not a big scientific experiment, but just an experiment that somebody did during the revolution that was taking place in Egypt”) where a liberal, a conservative and a “quote-unquote moderate” were asked to search for “Egypt,” and Google presented each of them with very different results.
“Whatever your biases were, that’s where you were being sent, and that gets more reinforced over time,” he said. “That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point you just live in a bubble, and that’s part of why our politics is so polarized right now.”
Appropriately for a politician who was so closely associated with hope, Obama also offered some optimism: “I think it is a solvable problem, but I think it’s one that we have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”
It seems that Facebook and the other big platforms are at least trying to address the issue. Yesterday, for example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social network will be prioritizing “meaningful social interactions” over news and publisher content.