'Think before you tweet': Obama warns of new tech pitfalls on India visit

Former President Barack Obama speaks during a leadership summit in New Delhi on Dec. 1. (Photo: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Former President Barack Obama said Friday that he has reservations about the way new media can create information silos and stifle critical thinking but remains hopeful about America’s overall trajectory.

On his first trip to India since leaving the Oval Office, Obama sat down with Indian journalist Karan Thapar on day two of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2017 in the Indian capital of New Delhi on Friday.

Thapar noted to Obama that many politicians tweet their thoughts on any subject, seemingly at any time — clearly alluding to President Trump’s freewheeling use of Twitter.

“Do you think tweeting your message is a sensible way of dealing directly with the people, or is it dangerous because when you have to compress you end up simplifying, sometimes distorting?” he asked.

Obama said that new platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are extraordinarily powerful tools that can be used for good or ill, and that the world is just beginning to understand the inherent challenges of these new technologies. They can create information silos and encourage snap judgments rather than critical inquiry, he said.

“Psychologists know that most of what are called quick snap judgments about complex issues are typically wrong,” Obama said. “One of the dangers is that instead of deep analysis or some skepticism toward initial information and the desire to learn more [and] evaluate, we start seeing a generation of a citizenry generally that just looks at the surface — the sizzle and not the steak, so to speak.”

He said that people who get their information from Fox News or the New York Times occupy completely different realities and that this significantly undermines the ability to build bridges in a democracy. Digital information bubbles have exacerbated this problem, he continued.

Former President America Barack Obama with Indian journalist Karan Thapar at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi on Dec. 1. (Photo: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

“I say that to suggest that those of us who are leaders in any field — and, look, I’ve got 100 million Twitter followers. I actually have more than other people who use it more often,” Obama said to laughter in a veiled swipe at Trump. As of Friday morning, Obama had 97.4 million Twitter followers and Trump had 43.7 million. “It’s important to be mindful about both the power of these tools but also their limits.”

During a speech in Toronto on Tuesday, former first lady Michelle Obama said people should never tweet the first thing that comes to mind, but they should always edit and spell-check.

When asked whom Obama thinks his wife had in mind, he did not mention Trump’s name. Instead, he said it’s just general advice that parents have always given their children. He said it’s simply an update on the adage “Think before you speak” — “Think before you tweet.”

Then Thapar asked, “America is famous for two Donalds. Donald Duck and Donald Trump. Which one represents the real America?”

Obama responded that what he loves about the U.S. is that it’s a “cacophony of life and it throws up all kinds of variety.” He said the U.S. has political trends that he doesn’t agree with, but he recognizes them as a running thread in American life. He said the Unites States’ contradictions are a source of joy as well as frustration.

“We can be very kind and noble, but there are times when we’re cruel and shortsighted. In that way, we’re like people. And I think India’s the same way,” Obama said. “But what I take heart from is the fact that the trend lines of America — similar to the trend lines of the world — are for more kindness, more inclusion, more health, more education, more equality.”

Obama also pointed out that the U.S. has made significant strides toward equality and human rights, and that this shouldn’t be taken for granted. He said institutions such as a free press and pursuits like scientific inquiry need to be passed on to the next generation so that further progress can be made.

Just as he mostly refrained from criticizing Trump, Obama did not take sides when partisan politics in India came up. He expressed approval for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party. He similarly praised Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, of the liberal Indian National Congress, who served as prime minister from 2004 to 2014.

He said his job as president wasn’t to evaluate details of their various platforms but to see whether their general focus was consistent with what he considered sound governance.

“I found both of them to be engaged, honest, direct with me, and both of them took tough decisions to help underwrite the international system,” Obama said.

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