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Former President Barack Obama looks on as President Joe Biden speaks duding an event about the Affordable Care Act at the White House on April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Former President Barack Obama looks on as President Joe Biden speaks duding an event about the Affordable Care Act at the White House on April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Former President Barack Obama looks on as President Joe Biden speaks duding an event about the Affordable Care Act at the White House on April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

By Jeff Cercone August 18, 2022

Obama was warning about disinformation, not endorsing it

If Your Time is short

  • Former President Barack Obama gave a speech at Stanford University in April to warn about online disinformation’s threat to democracies.

  • He cited, among other things, Russia’s weaponization of social media to target other countries, including the U.S.

  • He called for more government regulations on tech companies and urged those companies to be more transparent about how they operate.

A speech about the dangers of disinformation that former President Barack Obama gave at Stanford University on April 21, 2022, is being used months later on social media to spread disinformation.

"Is he on offense or defense?" read text overlaying a shortened TikTok video created April 30. "Notice he says ‘the game’s won,’ not the game is over."

In the tightly cropped, black-and-white video, Obama said:

"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 is won."

That four-month-old TikTok video was shared more than 3,800 times just on that platform, and has more recently been shared on Twitter. One user who shared the video has more than 63,000 followers. That tweet was liked more than 13,000 times.

Other similar TikTok videos also show Obama saying the same line.

Obama’s quote is real, but the videos are edited to leave out context and create the false impression that he supports the intentional spread of disinformation, which is false information created or shared intentionally to mislead others.

In the full speech, Obama — who was giving the keynote address at an event hosted by Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center about disinformation’s threat to democracy — called for governments and tech companies to better protect users.

Featured Fact-check

"People are dying because of misinformation," he warned about COVID-19 vaccine falsehoods at one point in the speech.

Before and after the line seen in the TikTok video, Obama spoke about how people like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Steve Bannon, a former adviser to former President Donald Trump, understand how to use disinformation "in order to weaken democratic institutions," referencing the 2016 U.S. election.

You can watch Obama’s full speech in the video above and read a transcript here, but here’s the context that’s missing from the TikTok video.

"Authoritarian regimes and strongmen around the world from China to Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil have learned to conscript social media platforms to turn their own populations against groups they don’t like, whether it’s ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, journalists, political opponents. And of course, autocrats like Putin have used these 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."

Our ruling

A TikTok video shares a truncated clip of Obama speaking about disinformation.

The former president did say the words in the video, but the video was edited to omit the context of the speech he gave at Stanford University. Obama wasn’t extolling disinformation’s virtues, but rather warning about its dangers and calling for governments and tech companies to better protect democracy.

We rate this claim False.

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Obama was warning about disinformation, not endorsing it

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