VANCOUVER — Michelle Obama says social media magnifies feelings of political and cultural division, underlining a need for people to get out of their online silos.
The former first lady of the United States made the remarks Thursday at a sold-out event presented by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, where she spoke to an audience of mostly women and girls in an auditorium that seats about 2,900 people.
She said for more than a decade, she and former president Barack Obama travelled the United States and found that people mostly got along peacefully.
Obama recalled something her daughter Malia said after a Fourth of July celebration where tens thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to watch fireworks. After the show, people packed up their things and dispersed calmly, she said.
"It's amazing that this many people can gather this peacefully," Obama recalled her daughter saying.
But Obama said that's what's happening around the world every day. Most people are fundamentally getting along, and they're more alike than they are different, Obama said at the first of two sold-out events she was speaking at on Thursday.
"Social media can do two things: it can bring us together or keep us isolated," she said, noting that people hiding behind a computer screen are emboldened to make nasty remarks.
"A life looking into your phone is not a life," she said. "You have to break out of your silo."
She urged people to connect with one another, not through tweets or posts, but through their voices, and added that the divisiveness of social media also lends itself to a certain type of leader.
Don't despair. Don't get bogged down in the negativity.Michelle Obama
"Leaders who lead by fear ... that's all you want to point to, what's broken and wrong," she said. "But if you choose to lead by hope, then you see that good.
"Don't despair. Don't get bogged down in the negativity," she added. "It takes time, but we are moving in the right direction."
Obama said she tries to teach her daughters, 16-year-old Sasha and 19-year-old Malia, to be cautious and not to tweet everything that's on their minds.
"It's a lot of talking and a lot of them not listening. Then something bad happens, and you say, 'I told you so,' " she deadpanned. "That's how we parent teenagers."
Social media does mean that kids are more connected and more knowledgeable than ever before, but it also exposes them to other people's opinions of them, she said.
Just because they got 1,000 likes doesn't mean they have 1,000 friends, she added.
"You just have a bunch of strangers following you. That should terrify you," she said, to laughs from the crowd.
She said she tweets "by committee." She drafts a post, calls eight people, gets their input, and spell-checks and proofreads it. Then she waits a day, calls two more people, and if they think it's a good idea, she posts it, she said.
You just have a bunch of strangers following you. That should terrify you.Michelle Obama
Obama also spoke about the challenges she faced as the first African-American to serve as the first lady. She said in some ways, it was like "eight years of reading horrible tweets.
"I felt that sting. I felt that judgment," she said. "They talked about what I looked like. ... They called me angry.
She said she was criticized "in the same way that Hillary Clinton continues to take hits, because she's a woman trying to do things that a lot of people think women shouldn't do."
But she said history is a bumpy road with many ups and downs.
"We still live in a racist world," she said. "(But) we've come a long way. There's no way my husband would have been elected two terms if we hadn't."
She recalled a key moment during the Obamas' time in the White House when they crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches alongside civil rights leaders of the time.
"There is nothing in my life that I've experienced that compares with what they have," she said.
The event, co-presented by the We For She Forum, which brings together female business leaders and young women, drew many girls from local high schools. Seventeen-year-old Deanna Senko called Obama an "inspiration."
"Pretty much everything she does is just encouragement for girls and women to get more active and involved in our society, and I love it."
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