The “great sorting”: In his farewell address, Barack Obama names the danger in our social media filters

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The distinct but frequently intertwined problems of fake news, social media filters, and post-fact discourse officially became the stuff of presidential farewell addresses tonight (Jan. 10) as Barack Obama delivered the last major speech of his two terms in office.

Counseling his fellow Americans to try to better understand each other, the outgoing US president lamented the forces that can make this a more difficult task than it used to be. From the transcript, and the video clip above:

For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste—all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

The topic became an Obama talking point in the run-up to the November election. Days before Americans headed to the polls, Obama complained to HBO talk show host Bill Maher about the “fun-house mirrors” distorting the truth in news, and the effect this has had on the US political system. The topic came up again in December, at the last scheduled news conference of Obama’s presidency.

America’s fake news threat isn’t new—in 1864, a misinformation campaign nearly derailed the re-election hopes of then-president Abraham Lincoln. And there is nothing particularly modern about partisan rancor, or about having regrettably narrow exposure to news sources or viewpoints. But social media has magnified all of these problems, by providing a means of distribution that makes fake news look deceptively legitimate, and by reinforcing the echo chamber of networks made up of like-minded people.

Of course, as Obama hinted, the internet also sometimes has a way of bringing together people with differing views. It’s just that the resulting exchanges aren’t always very productive.

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life,” Obama said, urging Americans to take action to preserve their democracy. “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing… Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America—and in Americans—will be confirmed.”