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Former U.S. president Barack Obama speaks with Tobi Lutke, CEO of e-commerce company Shopify, at an event hosted by Canada 2020 at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Friday, May 31, 2019.

Canada 2020

Former U.S. president Barack Obama is warning about the effects of fake news on democracies around the world and says societies need to have a conversation about how online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, can help users better identify what is true from what is not.

Mr. Obama made the remarks during an arm-chair-style discussion before an audience of 12,000 people in Ottawa Friday night. He said democracies have only had "episodic” discussions about misinformation and must work with social-media platforms to find ways to preserve some “core social good” online.

“The marketplace of ideas that is the basis of our democratic practice has difficulty working if we don’t have some common baseline of what’s true and what’s not,” Mr. Obama said during the hour-long event at the Canadian Tire Centre.

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“I know personally the people who created and run Facebook and Google and all the big social-media platforms that we have now and I think that the amount of power they now have, as essentially a common carrier of ideas, it means that there has to be some sort of collective conversation about how that works.”

Mr. Obama’s speaking engagement was hosted by Canada 2020, an influential think tank with close ties to the Liberal government. The former president spoke extensively about the impact of digital platforms − positive and negative − in democracies during a conversation with Tobi Lutke, CEO of Ottawa-based e-commerce company Shopify.

For instance, Mr. Obama said the internet has played an important role in holding world leaders to account.

“It used to be that if there was a massacre, an ethnic cleansing, on the other side of the world, in Asia, it might be on page four of The New York Times,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, we’re mindful of cruelty and disaster and problems that are taking place in almost instantaneous time. I think that puts pressure on leaders because it means people say ‘what are you doing about that?’ ”

Mr. Obama’s trip to Ottawa comes one day after U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence visited the capital.

Regardless of who is in the White House, Mr. Obama said Canada and the U.S. share, at their core, a commitment to “small-l liberal market-based democracy” and a belief in certain international norms and rules.

“One of the things that I have always emphasized and that I learned to appreciate even more during the presidency is that as powerful as the United States is, its international influence is hugely magnified by the alliance that it has with countries like Canada,” he said, as the crowd broke out in applause.

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The Trump administration has prided itself on a protectionist agenda, soured relations with allies and turned its back on the international multilateral system. Mr. Obama warned that when long-time alliances break down, a vacuum is created in the international space that risks being filled by “destructive” values.

Mr. Obama spoke warmly of Canada, saying he has a “little bit of a love affair” with the country.

The crowd cheered when Mr. Obama, an avid basketball fan, gave a shout-out to the Toronto Raptors, who are currently taking on the Golden State Warriors in the first NBA Finals in Raptors history. He concluded the event by suggesting that the world of politics take some important lessons from the game of basketball.

“Both teams play like teams. So their superstars are unselfish and just want results,” Mr. Obama said. “Lesson two is both teams draw from talent that is unexpected and international … If you don’t know where the talents going to be, you have to give opportunity to everybody.”

Mr. Obama last came to Ottawa in 2016, during his final year as president. In an address to Parliament at the time, he launched a broadside at the protectionist and anti-immigrant rhetoric of Mr. Trump, who was then a Republican presidential candidate.

Mr. Obama also attended the G8 and G20 meetings in Huntsville, Ont., and Toronto, respectively, in 2010. As with many past U.S. presidents, his first foreign trip as president was to Ottawa, in 2009.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shares a close bond with Mr. Obama, with the leaders poking friendly fun at each other over the years. But beyond what is described as a bromance, the men share similar approaches to everything from climate change to their social-media strategies.

Editor’s note: June 1, 2019: An earlier version of this story stated that President Trump has yet to visit Canada. In fact, he made a brief visit in 2018.
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