President Obama at the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

Can smartphones and social media change the world?

What Obama and world leaders said at the United Nations.

World leaders are now talking about technology, innovation, and social media even at the United Nations.

Credits: UN Photo

In his last official address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) as president of the United States, Barack Obama mentioned the power of technology, for both good and evil.

Obama reminded world leaders gathered in New York that “in remote corners of the world, citizens are demanding respect for the dignity of all people no matter their gender, or race, or religion, or disability, or sexual orientation, and those who deny others dignity are subject to public reproach.”

An explosion of social media has given ordinary people more ways to express themselves, and has raised people’s expectations for those of us in power.

He also stressed the importance of the Internet and mobile phones, and the need to invest in education and innovation in the poorest and most rural areas of the world.

The Internet can deliver the entirety of human knowledge to a young girl in a remote village on a single hand-held device.

But Obama also highlighted how technology can be used for evil by terrorist groups like ISIS.

Terrorist networks use social media to prey upon the minds of our youth, endangering open societies and spurring anger against innocent immigrants and Muslims.

It is not the first time that social media ends up in Obama’s speech to the UN. Back in 2014, the US president called upon communities around the world “to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject” the ideology of terrorist organizations like ISIS, including online.

That means contesting the space that terrorists occupy, including the Internet and social media. Their propaganda has coerced young people to travel abroad to fight their wars, and turned students — young people full of potential — into suicide bombers. We must offer an alternative vision.

The use of technology and social media by terrorist groups was also mentioned by British Prime Minister Theresa May in her first speech to the UN.

They are exploiting the internet and social media to spread an ideology that is recruiting people to their cause all over the world. So we need to tackle this ideology head-on.

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto also touched upon social media as a tool for governments to better listen and respond to their citizens and to make our democracies more participatory and more transparents.

Los gobiernos debemos ser capaces de escuchar y atender a una ciudadanía cada vez más informada y con mayores espacios para opinar y participar en los asuntos públicos. Las redes sociales están permitiendo una mayor participación ciudadana, haciendo de cada persona un potencial agente de cambio.

This year’s UNGA was opened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, his last before he steps out in December.

In a speech that recounts his 10 years at the helm of the United Nations, Ban told world leaders how smartphones are changing the world.

There is one last measure of the change that has defined the past decade. It is hard to believe, but when I took office, a smart phone like this had not even been introduced to the world. Today it is a lifeline and, perhaps at times, the bane of our existence! It is an indispensable part of our lives.

While reminding how technology and social media can be used for evil, Ban focused on the change they are bringing to communities around the world.

Our phones and social media have connected the world in ways that were unimaginable when I took office. Yes, they have been abused by extremists and hate groups. But they have also created a world of new communities and opportunities. For me, it is all a reminder of the power of individuals to change the world.