Former United States president Barack Obama has demanded Facebook and Google change their business models after warning the platforms are being exploited by jihadists and “neo-Nazis”.
The two times POTUS called on the internet giants to realise they are a “public good” rather than simply commercial companies seeking profits.
Mr Obama’s comments, given in a closed-doors university discussion, were never meant to be public but a recording of the conversation has leaked.
The intervention carries particular weight because Mr Obama’s use of social media was credited with helping secure his two election victories.
Mr Obama once did a convivial joint appearance with Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, where he joked he was the man who got Mr Zuckerberg “to wear a jacket and tie”.
A recording of Mr Obama’s recent appearance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was published on Reason magazine’s website.
In it the former president is heard explaining his campaign was an “early adopter” of social media but urging the companies to reconsider their approach.
“[It is a] hugely powerful potential force for good and I continue to believe that is the case,” Mr Obama said.
“But what is also true is that our social media platforms are just that, they are a tool. And Isis can use that tool and neo-Nazis can use that tool.
“And so I do think that the large platforms – Google and Facebook being the most obvious, but Twitter and others as well that are part of that ecosystem – have to have a conversation about their business model that recognises they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise.
“They’re not just an invisible platform, but they are shaping our culture in powerful ways.”
Mr Obama’s commets jar with the argument of the social media companies that they are platforms, which host other people’s content, rather than publishers, who are responsible for what appears in public.
The former president also warned that a “Balkanisation of our public conversation” was emerging where different sets of people listen and talk to only those who share their narrow political views.
“This was already happening with the advent of talk radio and cable, so it precedes the internet. It has accelerated with the internet,” Mr Obama.
“But essentially we now have entirely different realities that are being created with not just different opinions, but now different facts, different sources, different people who are considered authoritative.”
Separately Hillary Clinton, the former presidential candidate, criticised social media companies over claims they effectively charged her campaign more for each engagement with a voters online than Mr Trump’s campaign.
Ms Clinton tweeted: “We should all care about how social media platforms play a part in our democratic process. Because unless it’s addressed it will happen again.”
We should all care about how social media platforms play a part in our democratic process. Because unless it’s addressed it will happen again. The midterms are in 8 months. We owe it to our democracy to get this right, and fast. https://t.co/aM3pRrZW4J
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 27, 2018