Obama Keynotes Disinfo Conference Alongside Allies Linked to Fake News Scandals

Former president Barack Obama / Getty Images
April 21, 2022

Former president Barack Obama will speak Thursday at a Stanford University forum on media disinformation alongside a group of allies linked to fake news scandals, including his former aide Ben Rhodes.

Obama will give the keynote speech at the symposium as part of his personal crusade to fight disinformation in the digital domain. He announced this week that the Obama Foundation will work with experts to combat disinformation, which he said poses "real challenges" for democracy. Obama reportedly joined the fight after discussions with Apple heiress Laurene Powell Jobs, who has funded a network of fake local news sites that push Democratic talking points.

Obama's foray into the debate comes as Democrats have pressured social media companies to aggressively combat disinformation. Speakers at the Stanford forum will discuss the role of tech companies and the U.S. government in reducing political polarization.

Some of the speakers, including Obama, have themselves been accused of pushing false, politically divisive information, raising questions about their participation in a disinformation event.

Obama was awarded the 2013 "Lie of the Year" for declaring, "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it," in order to sell Obamacare to the American public. Rhodes, a national security adviser to Obama, admitted in 2016 that he manipulated journalists in order to push favorable but misleading stories in the media. Rhodes bragged about creating an "echo chamber" of reporters who amplified White House spin. Rhodes also said he "largely manufactured" a narrative about the timeline by which the Obama administration began negotiating with the Iranian government about its nuclear energy program.

Two lesser-known panelists have been at the center of disinformation firestorms. Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil rights group Color of Change, repeatedly pushed the false claim that actor Jussie Smollett was the victim of an anti-gay, anti-black hate crime in Chicago in 2019. Robinson pushed the hoax even after evidence emerged that Smollett lied to police about the attack. Renee DiResta, a Stanford researcher moderating a session with Obama, advised a technology company that created fake Russian bots in order to influence Republican voters in the 2017 Alabama special election. DiResta told the Washington Post she knew the tech company was involved in the Alabama race, but she denied knowing about its deceptive tactics.

Robinson and DiResta are speaking on a panel about the U.S. government's role in "facilitating consensus and reducing polarization at home."

In addition to a post at Stanford, DiResta is a fellow at the Emerson Collective, the media investment company owned by Jobs. The company has invested in outlets like the Atlantic, Axios, and Ozy, a failed pop culture website under investigation for fraud. Jobs recently hired a public relations firm, Sunshine Sachs, that has worked for Jussie Smollett and disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.