Online threats which intimidate people into standing down as MPs are “the path to authoritarianism [and] fascism”, Hillary Clinton has said.
Speaking to an audience in London, Clinton said she took “very seriously” the fact that significant numbers of female MPs had opted not to run again for parliament in the coming election, in many cases citing online intimidation and threats against their safety.
“When I heard about all these people, particularly the women, who weren’t going to run again [as MPs], and they attributed it to the threats they are going to face, that is not only a threat to individuals, that is a threat to democracies,” she said.
“If people are intimidated out of running for office in a democracy because of these hatemongers on the left or the right … that is the path [to] authoritarianism, that is the path [to] fascism.”
In conversation with the former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, Clinton expressed deep concerns about the misuse of technology and its impact on politics.
The former US secretary of state and defeated presidential candidate told an audience at King’s College London that she was particularly concerned about Facebook’s position that it will not regulate political speech, she said, “which means that it will take money for and run advertisements that are blatantly false”.
Citing a Trump campaign advert which she said contained “demonstrably false” claims about the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden but which Facebook has refused to take down, she said: “It’s a deeply irresponsible decision and it is one that will make it increasingly difficult for people running for office to persuade voters to vote for them based on accurate information as opposed to falsified information.
“Technology is outpacing our ability to keep up with it, to understand what is real and what is not, and I think this is not yet being addressed by our government, your government or any institution.
“We try to have at least a somewhat level playing field, at least for elections in our democracies, and in the absence of that, all bets are off, and it’s going to be like the old wild west.”
Referring to the internet regulations which her husband Bill Clinton signed into law during his presidency, she said: “Nobody in 1995 or 1996 thought, ‘Oh my gosh, [the internet] is going to do this wonderful job of connecting us globally, but it’s also going to be a platform for hate and disinformation and the worst kinds of human venality’. We thought it was all good news.”
In fact, she said, “I think we now are in a struggle for the future of democracies.”
Brexit, Clinton said, was “a symptom of some of the very real problems and disagreements that our democracies have. Your country is about as divided as our country is, trying to figure out what to do with the results of a referendum that didn’t provide as much guidance as needed to make the decision that the voters apparently voted for.
“At some point I hope that the UK can get back to really showing the kind of creativity and envisioning a future that is going to be good for all the people here and have positive effects all around the world.”
Clinton said she was particularly concerned as a former secretary of state at “the role that the US is both playing and refusing to play in the world right now, because I think it has made the world more unpredictable, less safe. These are matters that I don’t think I should address just because I am a former presidential candidate. I think people of concern, citizens in our country, your country, in democracies, need to be addressing. That motivates me and keeps me going.”
Gillard, who was Australian PM between 2010 and 2013, now chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, which was set up at KCL last year to explore the underrepresentation of women in political leadership.
She asked Clinton if, knowing what she knew now, she would have taken the same path, including running for president in 2016.
“Oh, [I would] go ahead and forge the same path, just recognise there are boulders and sink holes and all kinds of challenges along the way,” Clinton replied.