Barack Obama on spread of (mis)information creating more silos than unity

During Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce 2019 conference, former US President Barack Obama joined Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, to tackle a conversation around the spread of misinformation, and information. According to Obama, in this era of new information, at each junction there is a printing press, radio or TV, and social media and technology is disrupted – which can altogether be dangerous.

The former President explained that part of what is happening due to disruption, is that people do not know what is true and what is not and further more, they don’t know “what to believe and what not to believe”. People today, are certainly confronted with things they haven’t had to deal with before. “I think right now one of the biggest challenge we face is how do we start a common conversation around common culture,” he added.

Speaking of his youth, he emphasised the simplicity of having only a handful of TV stations and that “despite which political group you supported, everyone was watching the only three stations for news and updates”. Similarly, TV shows were minimal then too and regardless of race, every individual in the US watched and read the same things – which had ground rules on how information was delivered.

“But now if you watch Fox news, you will have a different reality than if you were reading the New York Times. And if you follow the rabbit hole on YouTube or on the internet, things suddenly look completely different,” Obama explained to the audience.

“We are silo-ing ourselves in ways, and the irony is we thought, and I still believe, that the internet could be a powerful tool for us to find each other and unify us. But right now it is splintering [us],” he added. While he was quick to add that these issues are no doubt solvable, the reality is, the road is a long and arduous one.

What organisations should do

Speaking about the rise of entrepreneurship amongst the youth, Obama added that big organisations today need to send the right signals to attract talent. He added that the next generation of youth aspires to be entrepreneurial, believe in the market and technology, but do not necessarily want to be associated with values from these big corporations.

He explained that if businesses are sending signals that it is all about short term quarterly earnings, while not caring about the environment and workforce, and come across as one only out to gain profits, it isn’t likely to attract a large talent pool. “If you are about seeing all of humanity connect, empowering others, being a steward for the planet, making yourself and everybody else seem important in the company, then people will come,” he said, adding:

Talent is there, and they just don’t think institutions are representing what they want.

He shared that during his time at the White House, he often called on the junior staff seated against the walls at cabinet meetings. This is because, he caught on fairly early enough that the junior staff were often the ones who “did the actual work” for generals and cabinet members. They were the ones who were able to deep dive into pressing issues that takes the conversation forward.

“Often when we think about leadership, we think about how [employees] have gone to certain schools or if they have certain credentials, but what I have found is that leadership exists everywhere,” he added. The goal for great leaders then is to encourage young talent to expand their impact, and influence in those areas where they are. Continuing to emphasise the need for diversity and talent in organisations, Obama added that leaders do not need to have a “fancy degree or be from big cities”. What creates an even bigger impact is when a group of leaders with different perspectives and backgrounds come together.

“We all have blind spots, which is why diversity is not charity and it is not something you do. If you are running a business right now and you have not a single African American or Latino or Asian American in your company, and if you don’t have diversity around the table, you are missing a mark. You are misunderstanding how your message is being received,” he said.

“There is talent everywhere but it doesn’t always look the way you expect. Even when we would have meetings with situation rooms or cabinet rooms on radiations at Afghanistan, and discuss on what to do about the global economic crisis, a lot of times the best answers we got were not from the people with the most important titles in the inner circle chairs, but rather it was the people all around the wall,” he said.

Salesforce paid for the journalist’s trip to Dreamforce 2019 held in San Francisco.

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