President Obama’s former aide discusses importance of exploring opposing viewpoints online

Mary Dolgoff, Reporter

President Barack Obama’s former digital director Caleb Gardner spoke to more than 30 people Friday about the importance of exploring opposing viewpoints on social media.

Gardner, who is now a digital marketer at global management consulting firm Bain & Company, said students should read news sources that may clash with their own views, mentioning Facebook and its newsfeed algorithm, which sorts through content and ranks stories in order of importance to best engage users.

“Facebook is the number one news source in America,” he said. “If that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know about Facebook’s news feed algorithm, because it’s catered to what you believe and engage with.”

Because of this, students’ political opinions are reinforced because they are only exposed to similar content, he said.

Gardner was the keynote speaker for last week’s Medill Fridays, a weekly event hosted by Medill to discuss topics relevant to journalism.

Medill Prof. Candy Lee, who helped organize the event, introduced Gardner and told the crowd that the president himself told Gardner that, in terms of social media presence, Gardner is “a better President Barack Obama than President Barack Obama.”

Gardner told The Daily he hopes students took away the importance of civility in politics and on social media. He said civility can’t happen on its own, and it is up to users to improve the state of social media.

Lee said the event’s organizers wanted to invite a speaker who would engage students about current issues and encourage them to think in different ways.

“Most people would know about the political process on Twitter, but they might not be thinking about how civility might be impacted in the future by what’s happening in the current campaign,” Lee told The Daily.

Medill junior Joshua Burton disagreed with Gardner’s argument on civility, saying there is a difference between being civil and respectful.

“Social media is a way for people to argue for different perspectives,” Burton said. “You don’t have to be civil per se, but I think you do have to respect other people’s opinions.”

Although Burton said he appreciated Gardner’s insight about the upcoming election, he does not think it will change his own use of social media, but rather, how he perceives other users.

“His point about using social media as a source of good in a complex political climate is interesting,” Burton said. “It’s going to change how I feel (about) social media for my own good.”

Editor’s Note: Candy Lee is a member of the board of Students Publishing Company, The Daily’s parent organization.