Although the internet has enabled an “amazing advance” for humanity, it has “real problems” with social networks, the addictive nature of smart devices and the loss of our personal privacy, says Bill and Hillary Clinton.
It was an unusual scene: a former US president and former first lady, the two most powerful elected officials in America some might say, sitting on a stage in Johannesburg discussing the state of the world – and the effects of the internet and technology on democracy and our mental health. Their interviewer was Adrian Gore, the CEO of Discovery Health, which puts on its annual leadership summit that this year also included President Cyril Ramaphosa, renowned innovation author Clayton Christensen and South Africa’s most prolific medal-winning athlete Caster Semenya.
Hillary Rodham Clinton went on to become the powerful secretary of state, and was a narrowly defeated presidential candidate two years ago in a bitterly contested and acrimonious contest that spawned a new phrase – “fake news” – and a new understanding of the new “post-truth” world.
Rodham Clinton was the target of email hacks by Russian operatives, while that country’s internet trolls spread disinformation that her opponent – current President Donald Trump – picked up on and amplified. One day this underhanded effort – often conducted through Facebook – will be considered by historians as a successful cyber campaign that almost certainly changed the result of Russia’s old Cold War foe’s most bitter election – to their advantage.
“The biggest news platform in the world is Facebook,” she said. “They are driving people to different news stories based on algorithms that really favour the sensational, the mouth-dropping sequencing, in Google or YouTube or anything else.”
Not surprisingly, the Clintons were able to point out how well-meaning technological innovations invented in a democracy with the best intentions were usurped by nefarious opponents.
Bill Clinton reminisced that when he was elected president in 1992 “there were 55 sites on the world wide web”. While technology has “been a massive force for good… in every advance of technology, there are people smart enough to realise they can do things with the truth or other people’s money and can take advantage of it”.
As was evident from Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign – that was constantly undermined by malicious untruths spread mostly on Facebook, where 44% of Americans consumed their news at the time – he said “the truth will never work as well as a lie”.
They also discussed the irony of Silicon Valley’s own parents banning their kids from using the smartphones and social media they have invented while the rest of the world is enthralled by them.
Ramaphosa, who received a standing ovation before and after his speech, said the truest line of the day, and the one South Africans have been desperate for: “The world is in dire need, not of leaders, but of leadership.”
Calling us a “great country” with “enormous potential,” Bill Clinton’s final five words of advice was “do not screw this up.”
This column first appeared in Financial Mail