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Fact Check-Clip of Obama criticizing the use of disinformation to threaten democracies taken out of context

A clip of a keynote address made by former U.S. President Barack Obama at Stanford University on how disinformation poses a threat to democracies has been taken out of context, with a section of his speech clipped to omit his criticism of the use of online disinformation as a weapon.

Users online have shared a 40-second clip of the former president, who is heard as saying: “You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe. Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won.”

Some online shared the clip with claims that it is proof of Obama’s outlining his strategy, rather than his criticism of those who he believes engage in online disinformation.

One user who retweeted the clip said: “Hmmmm...very interesting, don't you think!? Still think there's no shadow government!?” (here)

Another said: “I've been saying this is the aim of the left FOR YEARS!! Thank you for confirming it” (here).

One iteration of the clip gathered more than 5,000 likes at the time of writing (bit.ly/3T4RP5o).

The comments were made on April 21, 2022, at Stanford University, where Obama was the keynote speaker at the one-day symposium, titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm.”

The event was co-hosted by the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and the Obama Foundation, with panel discussions on topics ranging from “the role of government in establishing online trust, the relationship between democracy and tech companies, and the threat of digital authoritarians.” (here).

In his comments preceding the clip currently circulating online, the former president outlined his disapproval of weaponizing disinformation, rather than supporting such action.

The full comment was as follows: “And of course, autocrats like Putin have used these [social media] platforms as a strategic weapon against democratic countries that they consider a threat. People like Putin and Steve Bannon, for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions. You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe. Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won. And as Putin discovered leading up to the 2016 election, our own social media platforms are well designed to support such a mission, such a project (30:40s) (bit.ly/3QruMA3).

VERDICT

Missing context. The clip cuts Obama’s preceding comments, in which he was criticizing those who he believes engage in online disinformation.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here.

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