Her bid for the White House was engulfed by a tidal wave of fabricated news and false conspiracy theories. Now Hillary Clinton is calling for a “global reckoning” with disinformation that includes reining in the power of big tech.
The former secretary of state and first lady warns that the breakdown of a shared truth, and the divisiveness that surely follows, poses a danger to democracy at a moment when China is sell the conceit that autocracy works.
Clinton speaks to the Guardian via Zoom from her home in Chappaqua, New York, in an interview to mark the newspaper’s bicentenary this month. “I think the Guardian has been a great exemplar of press freedom for 200 years,” she says.
The 73-year-old wife of former US president Bill Clinton has more reason than most to be a student of media trends, from historic newspapers to the latest digital platforms.
In the 2016 election, Clinton was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party. The mainstream media was later criticized for creating a false equivalence between her career missteps and those of rival Donald Trump, who had suspicious contacts with Russia and faced multiple allegations of sexual assault.
In addition, Moscow helped fuel a social media disinformation campaign that targeted likely Democratic voters and was most infamously expressed in the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which made the preposterous claim that Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring at a Washington pizza restaurant.
Five years on, Trump has come and gone from the White House and America now has a female vice-president in Kamala Harris. But the dangerous lies have continued to thrive online, notably in the QAnon conspiracy movement, leading all the way to the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January. Far-right Republicans have become openly anti-democratic, endorsing Trump’s falsehoods and seeking to suppress voters of color.
The traditional the-truth-is-somewhere-in-the-middle approach will no longer do, Clinton argues.
“They’ve got to rid themselves of both-sidesism,” she says. “It is not the same to say something critical of somebody on the other side of the aisle and to instigate an attack on the Capitol and to vote against certifying the election. Those are not comparable, and it goes back to the problem of the press actually coming to grips with how out of bounds and dangerous the new political philosophy on the right happens to be.”
The press cannot be expected to restore a common baseline of truth on its own, however.
“The technology platforms are so much more powerful than any organ of the so-called mainstream press, and I do think that there has to be not just an American reckoning but a global reckoning with the disinformation, with the monopolistic power and control, with the lack of accountability that the platforms currently enjoy,” Clinton said.
She added: “In particular Facebook, which has the worst track record for enabling mistruths, misinformation, extremism, conspiracy, for goodness’ sake, even genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya. So governments are going to have to decide right now that the platforms have to be held to some kind of standard, and it’s tricky.”
A report commissioned by Facebook found in 2018 that the company failed to stop its platform being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar. And a recent Guardian investigation found that the company was painfully slow to heed warnings about political leaders who used it to deceive the public or harass opponents. Facebook has almost 2.8bn global monthly active users and its revenue in the fourth quarter of last year was $28bn.
There are signs that Joe Biden, the US Congress and the Federal Trade Commission intend to take a tougher line on big tech, but Clinton acknowledged: “It’s not easily done. They’re incredibly powerful. But I don’t see any alternative if we’re going to try to deal with the very real dangers that disinformation and the divisiveness it breeds pose to our democracies.”
Trump took swipes at internet companies, but concentrated most of his fire on CNN, the New York Times and other mainstream media. He notoriously gorged on press attention while also demonizing them as “the enemy of the people”. Clinton, who as secretary of state travelled the world promoting freedom of the press, was appalled.
“Once an American president said that the press was the enemy of the people, that gave permission to all kinds of autocrats to make the same claim,” she said. “I don’t know any American president who’s ever thought he got fair press; they always believe that they are not understood, or they’re being held to impossible standards or whatever their complaints might be.
“But we never had a president who essentially aligned himself with authoritarian thinking and acting the way we did with our former president.
“It did do damage inside our own country, because it fed paranoia, conspiracy theories, partisan differences in our own political system that led many people to claim that the press was the enemy of the people, or at least the enemy of what they believed in.”
Trump found willing accomplices for his narrative in the media itself, notably Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Clinton observed: “The fact is that certain media really became mouthpieces for Trump’s view of reality and fed the kind of disbelief and very negative view about anything that ‘the mainstream press’ had to say.
“On the other hand, the mainstream press had a very hard time coming to grips with the mendacity and the danger posed by Trump and his enablers and followers.
“It was very difficult. I understand the challenge that they faced. I think they were too slow in coming around to understanding that this was not an ordinary difference of opinion, this was not a different kind of leader in degree. This was a wholesale jettisoning of what we had come to understand as being appropriate boundaries for our leaders to operate within.”
The threat to democracy from these alternative realities is under particular scrutiny as China, a fast-rising power, promotes an alternative model to the world. Biden has suggested more than once that future generations will analyze this era and judge whether autocracy or democracy was more successful. Clinton agrees that the president has identified the defining issue of our time.
Democracies must demonstrate they produce results for citizens and stay united, she said. “There’s no doubt that the Chinese are basically making the opposite case that democracy is messy, things take too long, people are in and out of office, there’s no continuity, you can’t have the kind of fixed goals that can be moved forward in a socially cohesive way and therefore choose us. We are facing that struggle.”
Clinton’s commitment to democracy includes the “foundational” relationship between the US and UK. She expressed opposition to Brexit, which was passed by referendum less than five months before her election defeat, and still worries about its consequences.
“I’m concerned about decision making on behalf of the west because, as complicated as these relationships are and as sometimes distressing the bureaucracy can be, it’s really important, especially talking about democracy versus autocracy, that democracies stick together. So the separation of the UK from Europe, I hope, doesn’t lead to a weakening of the commitment to democracy and the strength of standing up against both internal and external threats,” she said.
Clinton is also alarmed by the uncertainty created by Brexit for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – an issue in which she has a personal investment.
“I’ve been disturbed at the recent violence and, as someone who was very committed to assisting my husband and George Mitchell and working with the British government and the Irish government for the Good Friday peace agreement, I would hate to see Brexit undermine that: it would be a tragedy of historic proportions,” she said.
It would be hard to work out what a UK-US bilateral trade agreement might look like until the border issue is resolved, she added, because one of the benefits that followed the Good Friday agreement was the promotion of direct investment from the US into Northern Ireland.
Clinton’s memories of Britain include seeing the musical Evita in London’s West End and staying overnight at Buckingham Palace when accompanying the Obamas. Speaking of the royal family, she extended condolences to the Queen for the death of Prince Philip but, in the wake of the Oprah Winfrey interview, declined to take sides on Megxit.
“I wish them all well. I know them and I can understand the challenges that any family faces in today’s world, and obviously I wish them the very best,” she said.
She was not America’s top diplomat for nothing.