Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decried the role that social media plays in modern politics, and in our day to day lives, while speaking in Detroit Friday night.
The event at the Fox Theatre downtown was hosted by actor Ben Stiller and is part of the couple’s North American speaking tour.
Both Clintons agreed that one of the most helpful aspects of meeting people, either as a candidate or in office, was hearing their stories – something that they said is less likely to happen with the rise of selfies and tweets.
“I grew up in the storytelling culture. I’m the last president who … I was ten years old before we got a television … so all of our entertainment was storytelling,” said Bill Clinton, who served as president from 1993 to 2001. “I learned to listen, because when I was a kid I couldn’t tell some interesting thing that happened to me when I was having dinner at my great-uncles, for example … unless I can relate what somebody else had just said.”
Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and 2016 Democratic nominee for president, noted that she would often hear about the opioid crisis even before it was getting media attention. That clued her into an issue that matters to everyday voters.
“Everybody has a story and everybody should be given the chance to tell their story. Now it’s hard to tell a story in a shaking hands encounter in a photo line, but you’d be surprised how many people, even in those short encounters, say something that really makes an impression,” she said. “In fact, one of the big changes in running for office, even from the first time I ran — and certainly form the first Bill ran many years ago — is that those encounters would often give you information that you wouldn’t otherwise get.”
Beyond its impact on how candidates campaign, however, the Clintons also expressed concern over the effect that social media is having on other aspects of life and politics – including spreading fake news.
“The thing that’s frustrating about today is it’s so hard given the information eco-structure, including all the stuff on social media, to know the difference in fact and fiction, and sometimes a lie works better than the truth. They say our attention span for hearing one person talk on the evening news, even the president, is between 8 and 9 seconds,” Bill Clinton said.
“If everything has got to be quick, then people aren’t three-dimensional and human problems aren’t three-dimensional problems; we just all turn into two-dimensional cartoons.”
Hillary Clinton talked about what this means for the next generation.
“How do you encourage your child, in our case, now grandchildren, to be engaged in the world without getting sucked into what is an artificial construct of the world? When people say they have friends they’ve never met, that’s never happened in human nature in the history of the world,” she said.
Ultimately, traditional media still does have a place in politics, the Clintons said, noting that both start their day reading a physical newspaper.
But after decades in politics, they’ve learned to disassociate themselves from what they see in those newspapers.
“We’ve had to, or we’d probably never get out of bed. We’ve had to figure out what is real and what’s not real. I remember so many years ago, for the first time reading an article that I knew was absolutely untrue; this was, I don’t know, 35 years ago. From then on, I learned to take criticism seriously, but not personally. If you’re in the public eye, people are always saying things or offering ideas, suggestions. So to try to take that in and take it seriously, but not to let it eat away at you,” Hillary Clinton said.
“Sometimes the people who are criticizing you can be actually very helpful by giving you insight you wouldn’t otherwise have. But sometimes, it is really intended to tear you down. So you have to learn how to balance that; it’s not easy, and I won’t say that I’m perfect at it. But we have, over many years, and, unfortunately, a lot of practice, figured out how to take it seriously, but not personally.”
One of those potentially hurtful criticisms is a social media narrative suggesting that the Clintons should go away after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to now-President Donald Trump.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who attended the event, said he does not agree with that idea.
“I don’t need anybody to be quiet. I think anybody with good ideas should be able to present them,” Gilchrist said.
Other notable attendees included U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.
Hillary Clinton narrowly lost Michigan to Trump in the 2016 presidential election, making it a key target for both parties in 2020.
Clinton’s opponent from the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), scheduled a 2020 campaign rally in Michigan for one day after the Clintons’ visit. He narrowly defeated her in the March 2016 primary here.
Sanders is the eighth presidential candidate to announce a trip to the state. Other candidates to have visited or planned visits include technology executive Andrew Yang, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), and President Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton has said she isn’t running in 2020. While both Clintons declined to offer thoughts on any specific presidential contenders, saying they are going to “let the candidates run their own races,” Hillary Clinton did say that they should be allowed to discuss policies.
“Part of that is for voters, for people, to take the elections back,” she said. “Take them back from social media, from the bots or the trolls or the Russians, the misleading ads; take them back and really demand the candidates tell you what they’re going to do.”