Former US President Barack Obama has told the graduates of 2020 he is proud of their involvement in peaceful activism, but warned against the spread misinformation and conspiracy theories through social media.
Obama was one of many celebrities, including his wife Michelle, to speak at YouTube’s Dear Class of 2020 virtual graduation ceremony on Sunday.
He said the students are “graduating into a world that faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades”, but it was up to them to uphold truth and correct misinformation.
“The challenges we face go well beyond a virus, and the old normal wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t working that well,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time, whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system.
“Similarly, the protests and response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Nina Pop aren’t simply a reaction to those particular tragedies, as heartbreaking as they are”, but “speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment, and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system.”
Obama said “shocks to the system” the class of 2020 are experiencing are a reminder not to take things for granted and urged them to vet information as they worked “to make things better”.
“To see so many of you participating in peaceful protest, to see so many of you of every race and background raise up your voices on behalf of justice for all, well, it’s been unbelievably inspiring. You make me optimistic about our future,” he said.
“You are the internet generation and the social media generation. In your pockets, you have access to more information than any group of people in history.”
However, he said social media can also be used to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories and warned them to avoid selecting their “own realities, independent of facts or science or logic or common sense”.
“We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases. We start cancelling everything else out. We let opinion masquerade as fact, and we treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration.”
He called on them to “create online cultures and communities that respect differences of opinion and freedom of speech” and “restore the kind of honest, informed, fact-based debate that is the starting point for tackling the challenges we face”.