Insights & Analyses

Obama Foundation facilitates open discussion on being a good citizen online

July 6, 2017

One of the first initiatives for the Obama Foundation is to help create a better digital world, where people interact with one another and exchange ideas and beliefs sometimes at odds with their own. It hopes to kickstart that effort with an open, global discussion on digital citizenship.

President Obama spoke at the University of Chicago in April, and lamented that online discussions have created “a situation in which everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them.”

How to solve that problem remains unclear, which is why Obama Foundation Chief Digital Officer Glenn Brown issued an open call this week, asking for input on what people think it means to be a good citizen online. In the foundation’s view, some of the original vision of the internet has been lost, as people participate in self-imposed silos, only interacting with others they agree with.

Brown said the Obama Foundation believes the first step is to identify the problems faced by people in the digital realm and to talk about them openly. The hope is that the tools that have led to disfunction and societal rifts can be used for a greater good.

To get the conversation started, the Obama Foundation has issued a series of questions that people can respond to through the organization’s website, or by using the hashtag #DigitalCitizen on social media. The questions are:

  • 1. Who’s a model of digital citizenship in your world? Why?
  • 2. What habits do you want to change about your online life? What practices would you recommend for others? What’s one simple thing you could do to improve your “digital health”?
  • 3. What people or organizations do you think exemplify digital citizenship when it comes to questions of embracing difference — of thought, identity, or any other variable that you value?

Of course, Obama’s involvement in the #DigitalCitizen effort is likely to hamper it from the start, no matter how nonpartisan its goals may be, given the currently polarized political climate in both the U.S. and abroad.

The initiative comes on the heels of America’s so-called “Facebook election,” in which targeted ads and false propaganda — on both sides of the aisle — helped swing the election in favor of Trump, especially after users on social media willingly and knowingly spread misinformation with the sole intent of helping their candidate.