When Helena met Hillary

‘We are living in a time when social media entertainment is the coin of the realm,’ Clinton tells Kennedy. Dan Carrier reports from the Hay Festival

Thursday, 9th June — By Dan Carrier

Hillary Clinton Hay Festival 2022 credit Neil Mansfield

Baroness Helena Kennedy with Hillary Clinton at Hay. Photo: Neil Mansfield

THE degradation of learning and expertise, a hatred of anyone considered different, and the targeting of vulnerable people with conspiracy theories are challenges modern democracies face, according to the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Speaking at the Hay Festival, the former Democrat Presidential candidate was interviewed by Belsize Park-based human rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy.

Clinton reflected on running against Donald Trump, the rise of authoritarian governments, the threat to democracy and the information war waged to destabilise states.

Clinton, who was defeated by Trump in 2016 in the US Presidential elections, told a sell-out crowd it was crucial to first understand why we are facing rising authoritarianism – and then be vigorous in countering it.

“It is a global phenomenon and rises from several sources,” Clinton said. “We need to understand this. Firstly, we are living in a time where social media entertainment is the coin of the realm.

“Leaders who are demagogues, who are more entertaining, more shocking, are appealing to one’s fears, as opposed to one’s hopes, are given a position in our information eco-system that is to their advantage.”

She cited how algorithms drive social media, and has given those intent on dividing societies an effective tool.

“This favours the authoritarian, populist, conspiratorial perspective,” she added.

“Another factor is democracy is hard. It is often disappointing, you do not get all you want. Democratic policy making is seen as boring and insufficient.”

Clinton stated she believed public discourse had become warped. She faced a barrage of misinformation in 2016, ranging from alleged collusion with foreign powers to a bizarre conspiracy theory involving paedophilia, Satanism and a basement of a pizza restaurant. It was believed by millions of voters.

“There is a concerted effort not just by people in political power but also in the media and in other aspects of society to create this post-fact world,” she said.

“We saw that tragically in the debates over Covid and vaccines. Your opinion is somehow more important than expertise, in fact it is more legitimate than expertise in the world in which we find ourselves, and that creates a very fertile ground for authoritarianism. But of course it is not enough just to analyse it, we have to figure out how we deal with this.”

Clinton highlighted how places once considered bastions of the democratic principle – Europe and the US – populism is attacking the fabric of society.

“There are fundamental values,” she said. “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, respect for minority rights, the protection of individual freedom and dignity against government control and oppression.

“Then you get someone like Orbán in Hungary, who claims his is a new model, an ‘illiberal’ democracy. That is Orwellian. They say we are democratic, but as long as we are the only one party.

“You can have a free press as long as it supports the government. There is a lot of double speak.”

Seeing this up close was an at times puzzling experience, she said. Clinton went head to head with Trump in televised debates – and her Presidential rival did all he could to intimidate her.

“Trump said so many crazy things,” she recalls, including the allegation that if he did not win the 2016 election, it would be because of fraud – a claim he made after losing in 2020 to Joe Biden.

“He set it up as a fail safe excuse and I wish I had called that out more forcefully,” she adds. “In 2016, there was not enough attention paid to the consequences of electing Trump.

“He was such an attractive figure for the media. No one knew what he would do next.”

As Trump peddled lies, riddling speeches with catchy falsehoods that played on fears and were backed up by misinformation filling social media, Clinton had to react.

How she responded would be crucial to her chances of election, she believed.

“I was the first women in that position,” she adds. “I was in a different psychological place. People needed to imagine me as a President and commander-in-chief.”

When Trump tried during a debate to physically intimidate her, Clinton had to think fast.

“I wanted to say back off, you creep. It was tempting, but it would have been oh, she couldn’t handle Trump, how could she be a leader, how could she deal with Putin?” she added.

While Trump was an easy bogeyman to target, his influence has spread, she warned.

“About 40 per cent of the population think Trump won the elections, even though he has lost all 60 court cases,” she says.

“This is undermining democracy. It is a poison in the heart of our nation.”

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