Hillary's health and the Age of Disinformation

The coverage of Hillary Clinton’s health should worry us if we care about how the press operates on a democracy.

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In the 2005 Doctor Who Christmas special, the British prime minister – an older woman called Harriet Jones – reneges on a promise to let a bunch of aliens leave the planet in peace. After she orders their ship to be shot down, David Tennant’s furious Time Lord tells her that he could bring down her government with a word – or, rather, six words. As she stands defiantly in front of him, he goes to her closest aide and whispers: “Don’t you think she looks tired?”

For the past few months, the “alt right” – a loose collection of bloggers, websites, internet wing nuts and other Trump-supporting flotsam – has been attempting a similar trick on Hillary Clinton. In 2012, the Democratic presidential nominee hit her head, and since then rumours have swirled about a more serious health problem. With appalling timing, the Clinton campaign finally responded to these rumours last week, only for their visibly sick candidate to need bundling out of a 9/11 memorial event on Sunday into a waiting people carrier.

The initial explanation that Clinton “overheated” later gave away to an admission that she was suffering from pneumonia. But by this time, opinionators had already rushed to fill the space created by years of stealthy narrative-building. News anchors put on serious faces to discuss whether Bernie Sanders would have to step in, and WikiLeaks posted about a “metal or  glass object [falling] from Clinton’s right hand” in a tone that conveyed the impression this was very sinister. It later tweeted, and then deleted, a poll inviting followers to guess whether Clinton was suffering from an allergy problem, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or a head injury. Scrolling through Twitter, I chanced upon a lively meme industry devoted to suggesting that a bulge in Clinton’s trouser leg at an earlier event “proved” she wears a catheter.

This is a grand, internet-wide version of the “push polling” developed by Republicans as an election weapon. In 2000, when George W Bush was battling John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary, voters were called to ask how they would feel – hypothetically! – if McCain had a black love child. What he actually had was a daughter adopted from Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, Bush’s close adviser Karl Rove was one of the early promoters of the “Clinton has brain damage” meme. Of course, he denies using those words; but in May 2014 he said to the New York Post: “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” In a similar way, Donald Trump began his latest tilt at the presidency by wondering “what’s up” with Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

A few things: first, pneumonia can affect anyone of any age. It’s awful, but temporary. Second, if Hillary Clinton is concealing a serious illness, it’s positively presidential: FDR hid being in a wheelchair for years, and JFK had Addison’s disease and back problems so severe they required surgery. Third, the only evidence we have for Donald Trump’s own glowing health is a note his doctor admits writing in five minutes while a limousine waited for it outside, which says that his “laboratory test results were astonishingly excellent” and “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary”. No actual medical records were provided. Fourth, we might pause briefly to note the subtle sexism the saga relies on: at 68, Grandma Clinton feels old, while the 70-year-old Trump is in the prime of his life.

Throughout all this, the remaining chunk of the US media that hasn’t lost its goddam mind during this election chewed over the biggest dilemma of modern political journalism: how do you report wild speculation without implicitly endorsing it? As British outlets discovered during the EU referendum, there is no way to debunk without repeating; and outrageous claims are, by definition, hard to ignore.

In 1815, it took three days and two hours for news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo to reach Britain. In 2001, President Bush was among the last people in America to see footage of the twin towers falling, because he was stuck on Airforce One, which at the time could pick up only local TV broadcasts and they kept dropping in and out of signal range. When I started in journalism, newspapers still had cuttings libraries, to be consulted in the event of a query. Information was a scarce and precious resource. Now, the market has been flooded with cheap imports from dodgy suppliers: the price has fallen, but so has the quality. Social scientists often call this the Information Age, but it would be more accurate to call it the Age of Disinformation. Every fact you could possibly want is at your fingertips – but it’s no easier to tell what’s true.

For populist candidates, it is now an established tactic to run against the traditional media, to undermine any negativity with a pre-emptive “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”. The reach of social media – and the resistance to scrutiny conveyed by having no universal, central “front page” – makes this tactic viable. In August, the New York Times’s John Herrman revealed a vast cottage industry of political fan pages on ­Facebook, often run by individuals, ­devoted to ripping off content from news sites, mixing it with conspiracy theories and repackaging it in the most attention-grabbing way possible to generate clicks and shares (and thus advertising revenue). “In front of largely hidden and utterly sympathetic audiences, incredible narratives can take shape, before emerging, mostly formed, into the national discourse,” he wrote.

If you don’t find this scary, you should. Journalistic standards and the checks and balances of democracy – institutions built up over generations – are now shown to be built on sand. And the waves of disinformation are lapping at their foundations. 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation