Thursday, 17 November 2016

President Obama, With Angela Merkel in Berlin, Assails Spread of Fake News

In his strongest public comments since the election, President Obama on Thursday sharply criticized the spread of fake news online and said that President-elect Donald J. Trump would not remain in office for long if he failed to take the job seriously.


Mr. Obama made his remarks at a news conference in Berlin beside the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, one of his closest allies on the Continent, calling the pair “veterans” of the international political stage. Ms. Merkel was unusually sentimental. “It is hard to say goodbye,” she said.

But instead of basking in the glow of his valedictory tour of Europe, Mr. Obama used the moment to make a passionate and pointed attack on bogus news stories disseminated on Facebook and other social media platforms, twice calling such false reports a threat to democracy in his hourlong news conference.

Mr. Obama also warned Mr. Trump of the need to take the job of the presidency seriously and to be tough on Russia.Continue reading the main story

“The extraordinary demands that are placed on the United States not just by its own people, but by people around the world — that forces you to focus,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Trump’s ascent to the presidency. “That demands seriousness.”

“And if you’re not serious about the job, then you probably won’t be there very long,” Mr. Obama added.

But it was on the subject of false information coursing through social media and television that Mr. Obama was most impassioned, so much so that at one stage he lost track of the question he was answering.

“Because in an age where there’s so much active misinformation and its packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television,” Mr. Obama said. “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.”

“I got all caught up in that one,” he said.

Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, recently said fake news on the social network was rare, and dismissed notions that such reports might have swayed the election as “pretty crazy.”

But executives and employees at Facebook have been questioning if, or how, the social network helped influence the opinions and votes of Americans, according to interviews with current and former Facebook employees.

Bogus news stories appearing online and on social media appear to have had a greater reach in the final months of the campaign than articles by authoritative, mainstream news outlets, according to an analysis of Facebook activity by BuzzFeed.

In the three months before Election Day, the most popular stories produced by hoax sites and “hyperpartisan blogs” generated more engagement — likes, shares and comments — on Facebook than the most popular articles by major news websites, the analysis found.

Among the 20 most popular fake election stories identified by BuzzFeed, all but three favored Mr. Trump or denigrated Hillary Clinton.

Facebook and Google, which has also faced mounting criticism over distribution of fake stories on its platforms, said this week that they would take aim at the fake news sites’ online sources of revenue.

In Berlin, Mr. Obama pointed a second time to the potential dangers of false news reports.

“In the United States, if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened,” he said in response to a question about the recent election.

“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Ms. Merkel offered her own warnings about the disruptions associated with digitization, likening the present period to the social disruptions that occurred during the Industrial Revolution.

Germans have shown deep ambivalence toward social media, worried that global companies fail to respect the country’s strict laws protecting personal privacy. Facebook has also come under scrutiny from the German government for allowing the spread of hate speech in postings that would be illegal in traditional media.

The chancellor thanked Mr. Obama for putting “personal privacy on the agenda,” a nod to the strain in relations between the two after it emerged in 2013 that the National Security Agency had been monitoring Ms. Merkel’s cellphone, prompting outrage among Germans.

Mr. Obama urged Mr. Trump to cooperate with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when the Russians behave, but said he hoped “that the president-elect also is willing to stand up to Russia where they are deviating from our values and international norms.”

“And I don’t expect that the president-elect will follow exactly our blueprint or our approach, but my hope is that he does not simply take a realpolitik approach,” Mr. Obama said.

“That will be something we’ll learn more about as the president-elect puts his team together,” he added.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly complimented Mr. Putin and has sought to improve ties with Russia. The United States has accused Russia of hacking emails of Democratic Party officials in order to influence the election, and Mr. Putin warmly welcomed Mr. Trump’s victory.

Mr. Obama said he spoke to Mr. Trump last week about ensuring that his actions help to unify and not divide the country.

“And what I said to him was what may work in generating enthusiasm or passion during elections may be different than what will work in terms of unifying the country and gaining the trust even of those who didn’t support him,” Mr. Obama said. “And he’s indicated his understanding of that.”

“That has to reflect itself not only in the things he says but also in how he fills out his administration,” Mr. Obama said, apparently referring to Mr. Trump’s appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as a senior adviser. Mr. Bannon has been criticized for his association with racist, nationalistic and anti-Semitic views.

“My hope is that that’s something he is thinking about,” Mr. Obama added. “Because not only is the president of the United States somebody that the entire country looks to for direction, but sets the agenda internationally in a lot of ways.”

Mr. Obama said Mr. Trump had reassured him that he would remain committed to the NATO alliance once in office, and that he was encouraged by that.

Germans have been unsettled by many of Mr. Trump’s campaign pledges, above all his questioning of America’s commitment to NATO. West Germany relied on the alliance to protect it from the Soviets throughout the Cold War and many Eastern European countries now see it as their guarantee against a resurgent Russia.

Yet the Europeans, including Germany, have failed consistently over the years to uphold their financial commitment to supporting the alliance, long a sore point with Washington.

Germany has fallen short of its contributions over the past several years, and in 2015 made good on only about half its pledge, despite record tax income for the government.

Ms. Merkel vowed that this would change in the future, crediting Mr. Obama with delivering the message that Germany needed to increase military spending.

“In the long term, the imbalance over defense spending cannot be maintained, and Germany has understood this message and already begun to react,” Ms. Merkel said.

Mr. Obama added that Germans should appreciate what the United States had done for the country since World War II.

“But I can say to the German people that the United States has been good for Germany,” he said. “Has looked out for Germany. Has provided security for Germany. Has helped rebuild Germany. And unify Germany.”

Mr. Obama also said that if he were German, he would probably vote for Ms. Merkel, who may run next year for a fourth four-year term. “I don’t know whether that hurts or helps,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Obama arrived in Berlin on Wednesday night, and the two leaders had a private dinner. Mr. Obama spent much of Thursday morning waiting at his hotel for Ms. Merkel’s schedule to clear.

The two dined again Thursday evening and will meet Friday morning along with the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Spain. Mr. Obama leaves for an Asian-Pacific summit in Lima, Peru, early Friday afternoon.
President Obama, With Angela Merkel in Berlin, Assails Spread of Fake News
Correction: November 17, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the caption for the video with this article misidentified the world leader who referred to President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel as “veterans” of the international political stage. It was Ms. Merkel, not Mr. Obama.
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