Former U.S. President Barack Obama was one of many celebrities to speak at YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” virtual graduation ceremony on Sunday, and his speech included calls to action for the graduating class.
He told graduates how they are “graduating into a world that faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades.”
“The challenges we face go well beyond a virus, and the old normal wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t working that well,” he said. “In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time, whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system. Similarly, the protests and response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Nina Pop aren’t simply a reaction to those particular tragedies, as heartbreaking as they are. They speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment, and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system. These shocks to the system that we’re seeing right now, just as you prepare to go out into the world, they remind us that we can’t take things for granted. We have to work make things better.”
Obama also spoke to his pride in the new generation for their activism.
“To see so many of you participating in peaceful protest, to see so many of you of every race and background raise up your voices on behalf of justice for all, well, it’s been unbelievably inspiring. You make me optimistic about our future,” he said.
The former president also talked about the importance of vetting information, especially in the age of social media.
“Use all that critical thinking you’ve developed from your education to help promote the truth,” he said. “You are the Internet generation and the social media generation. It’s not just how you shop, or listen to music or watch videos, it’s part of your social lives, it’s the new town square where you all come together to meet. In many ways, it’s been an amazing tool. In your pockets, you have access to more information than any group of people in history. It’s allowed movements of like-minded people to mobilize on behalf of worthy causes.
However, he said social media can also be used to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“What’s become clear is that social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, divisions, and falsehoods, to bully people and promote hate,” he said. “Too often, it shuts us off from each other instead of bringing us together, partly because it gives us the ability to select our own realities, independent of facts or science or logic or common sense. We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases. We start cancelling everything else out. We let opinion masquerade as fact, and we treat even the wildest conspiracy theories as worthy of consideration. The irony is that usually the people who are peddling falsehoods on the internet or social media are doing so for their own purposes: Either to sell you something or to distract you from the real issues that matter. You can change that. If a friend tells you COVID-19 is a hoax, politely correct them. If an older relative cites some video to promote a racist stereotype, show him or her why that video is a sham. As a generation that understands social media and technology a lot better than anyone, it’s going to be up to you to create online cultures and communities that respect differences of opinion and freedom of speech, and also restore the kind of honest, informed, fact-based debate that is the stating point for tackling the challenges we face.”
Obama was one of more than 70 celebrities, influences and musical artists to participate in the ceremony. Other notable contributors included BTS, Beyoncé, Lizzo, and Lady Gaga.
Michele Obama also spoke about activism during her speech earlier in the program.
“If you’re spending a lot of time just hash tagging and posting, that’s useful especially during a pandemic, but it’s only a beginning,” she said. “Go further. Send all your friends a link to register to vote. Text everybody you know to join you to exercising their constitutional right to protest.”
The pair also spoke near the top of the program, briefly welcoming the graduates.
“Dear Class of 2020” is one of many many virtual graduation ceremonies that have taken place to celebrate the class of 2020. The ceremony was originally scheduled for June 6, but was rescheduled by YouTube to the next day to honor the memorial service of George Floyd being held in Raeford, N.C. Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25.
Watch the livestream here.