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On his third visit to India, former U.S. President Barack Obama discussed Fox News and how politicians should use Twitter, among other things, at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi on Friday.
Following his opening speech, Obama engaged in an hour-plus conversation with veteran Indian journalist Karan Thapar, which was webcast and also aired on the CNN-IBN news channel. The discussion covered a variety of topics, from the impact of social media to climate change to comparisons between Donald Trump and Donald Duck.
When asked about his views on politicians’ use of Twitter, the audience and Obama reacted with laughs. “I have an excellent focus group in my daughters since they are the generation who are on their phones, and whenever there is a new app, they have to explain it to me,” Obama replied. “So I am able to watch and keep up in how it is being used and absorbed.”
He then added that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp “are all extraordinarily powerful tools, and these tools can be used for good or for ill.” He warned that there were “inherent or built-in challenges that exist within these new technologies.” One of them is that their use “leads to a lot of snap judgments,” he said. “Psychologists know that most of these judgments are typically wrong.”
Thapar referred to Michelle Obama’s comments at an event in Toronto on Tuesday where she offered her views on Twitter, taking an obvious jab at Trump, stating that it was “never a good idea” to put your first thought in the morning on social media and never a good idea to “tweet from bed.” The former first lady also stressed the importance of doing drafts adding, “you need to edit and spell-check it.”
“It wasn’t me she talked about,” replied Obama, drawing more laughter from the audience. “I also use punctuation in my text, which my daughters think is odd.” He elaborated that “Michelle was giving the general idea, which your mother also said, that don’t say the first thing that pops in your head. Have a little bit of an edit function … think before you speak, think before you tweet.”
Another negative impact of these technologies has been that they have “created these information silos,” Obama said, expanding on his point by drawing comparisons with traditional media. “Those who watch Fox News and those who read The New York Times occupy completely different realities. If I watch Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me. I would watch it and say who is that guy [Obama]? This character Barack was portrayed in weird ways. It is all edited and shaped. … The point is, you get multiple realities.”
He continued with the example of trying to have a conversation with someone on climate change. “It’s hard to have a conversation if someone says climate change is a hoax. If you are saying it [climate change] is a hoax, there is no way to bridge our differences,” Obama said to applause. It was the latest signal that he and President Donald Trump have opposing views on climate change.
Obama then returned to the impact of social media, reminding everyone that “I have almost 100 million followers [on Twitter], more than other people who use it more often,” which was seen as a reference to Trump who has over 43 million followers.
Thapar concluded the session by testing Obama’s diplomatic skills with a question about Trump and one of Walt Disney’s most iconic characters. “There are two Donalds in America — Donald Trump and Donald Duck. Which of them represents the real America?”
As laughter subsided, Obama chose his words carefully, saying: “Let me say this — the thing I love about America and the thing, I assume, you love about India, is just this cacophony of life [that these countries have] and it throws up all kinds of variety. And there are political trends in America that I don’t agree with and abide by, but I recognize them as part of a running thread in American life.”
He added that “one of the joys and one of the frustrations is that it can be contradictory. We can be very kind [and] there are times when we are cruel and short-sighted … But what I take heart from is the fact that the trend lines of America are similar to the trend lines of the world, which are for more kindness, more inclusion, more health, more education, more equality.”
Obama concluded with a message aimed at young people: “I always say to young people who would come to the White House or when I was traveling, as bad as the news is everyday, understand that if you had to choose a moment in human history in which to be born … where you had the best chance to have a good life, it would be this moment right now,” he said. “We shouldn’t take for granted what we have to pass on to young people.”
In his opening address, Obama referred to the links between the U.S. and India, saying: “Our history together speaks about a common set of values — pluralism and tolerance, a liberal, market-based order that places primacy on individual rights.”
Obama first visited India in 2015, becoming the first U.S. president to be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day parade.
Obama’s India visit will include another session where he will address a town hall meeting later on Friday in New Delhi organized by the Obama Foundation.
The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit is organized by the Hindustan Times newspaper group and features eminent Indian and overseas luminaries. This year’s lineup included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bollywood star Salman Khan, billionaire Mukesh Ambani and Rose McGowan. The two-day event concludes Friday evening with a session with Naomi Campbell.
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