Former President Barack Obama appeared in Youtube’s “Dear Class of 2020” graduation ceremony on June 7 offering his heartfelt congratulations to the graduates for their academic achievements, as well as their role in providing the world with something it needs now more than ever: hope.
While dealing with a global pandemic, the unjust deaths of many members of the Black community and many other challenges, hope seems to be scarce. Obama does not shy away from the fact that this class is “graduating into a world that faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades.” The problems referenced include racism, sexism and economic inequality, which are unfortunately nothing new in our society. What is new is that the younger generation refuses to accept these injustices any longer, and are more than willing to take action. This is why Obama, and so many others, find this hope for the future in the youth—in the Class of 2020. He deems their response to the death of George Floyd as “unbelievably inspiring.” I couldn’t agree more.
Aside from offering support and congratulations to the graduates, Obama offered some insightful advice about their social responsibility. The faith that Barack Obama and many others have in this generation is due to the immense impact and interest they have already demonstrated for the betterment of our world. Obama advises the Class of 2020 to continue down the path of fighting injustice for their rest of their lives. It was around this point in the speech that the topic of social media was introduced, and I believe that he was right to use this opportunity to say what he did. It would be ignorant to not recognize that developments with technology, the internet and social media are the tools that have allowed for our generation’s voices to be heard worldwide and our impact be notable. Obama is very much aware of the large presence of social media in the lives of young people, as he has two young daughters of his own. He notes that this generation has near instantaneous access “to more information than any group of people in history.” This is our superpower…if we use it right.
One of social media’s greatest attributes is that it provides a space for discussions on a variety of different issues. A myriad of opinions, beliefs, and perspectives can be found on social media platforms. Freedom of speech is certainly utilized by internet users. While this is a positive for many obvious reasons, such as the creation of a participatory democracy and encouraging diversity, the ability for individuals to publish almost any thought on the internet can pose a real threat to society.
It is irresponsible to ignore the “spread of conflict, divisions” and the promotion of hate that is often seen on social media platforms. I find these things to be most apparent in two areas, although there are certainly many other examples. The comments section on Instagram posts, especially those of people in the spotlight, are regularly filled with body-shaming words and other cruel observations of physical appearance. Then there is Facebook, where it seems that respectful and open-minded discussions about any topic that can be considered remotely political are impossible. Debates turn into vicious, and sometimes threatening, arguments where there is no effective exchange of ideas or perspectives.
The curation of content aids in creating these extremely polarized opinions. Obama acknowledges the negative consequences of such filtering saying that, “We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases. We start cancelling everything else out.” These words bring to mind the much contested but well-known debate over the notion of fake news. Many argue that fake news and the curation of content is not an issue, using freedom of speech to back up their claims. It is also difficult to convince people that it is beneficial to read, look at or listen to things that contradict their own opinion and beliefs. I have engaged in this very debate in my classes often, and I stand by the belief that curation of content can be detrimental to society. Our generation should be fighting to transform social media into a place where love is promoted and constructive discussions occur. I agree with Obama’s challenge to our generation to fill these platforms with “fact-based debates” rather than “falsehoods.”
Former President Barack Obama was right to use his message to the Class of 2020 to not only congratulate them, but to re-emphasize the responsibility they have as the “Internet generation.” The Class of 2020, alongside the rest of us, has the capability to utilize the most powerful tool in its possession to encourage love, respect and diversity, and to eradicate hate to the best of its abilities.