Christiane, great to have you here. So you've had this amazing viewpoint, and perhaps it's fair to say that in the last few years, there have been some alarming developments that you're seeing. What's alarmed you most?
Well, just listening to the earlier speakers, I can frame it in what they've been saying: climate change, for instance—cities, the threat to our environment and our lives. It basically also boils down to understanding the truth and to be able to get to the truth of what we're talking about in order to really be able to solve it. So if 99.9 percent of the science on climate is empirical, scientific evidence, but it's competing almost equally with a handful of deniers, that is not the truth; that is the epitome of fake news. And so for me, the last few years—certainly this last year—has crystallized the notion of fake news in a way that's truly alarming and not just some slogan to be thrown around. Because when you can't distinguish between the truth and fake news, you have a very much more difficult time trying to solve some of the great issues that we face.
Well, you've been involved in this question of, what is balance, what is truth, what is impartiality, for a long time. You were on the front lines reporting the Balkan Wars 25 years ago. And back then, you famously said, by calling out human right abuses, you said, "Look, there are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you're neutral, you are an accomplice." So, do you feel that today's journalists aren't heeding that advice about balance?
Well, look, I think for journalists, objectivity is the golden rule. But I think sometimes we don't understand what objectivity means. And I actually learned this very, very young in my career, which was during the Balkan Wars. I was young then. It was about 25 years ago. And what we faced was the wholesale violation, not just of human rights, but all the way to ethnic cleansing and genocide, and that has been adjudicated in the highest war crimes court in the world. So, we know what we were seeing. Trying to tell the world what we were seeing brought us accusations of bias, of siding with one side, of not seeing the whole side, and just, you know, trying to tell one story. I particularly and personally was accused of siding with, for instance, the citizens of Sarajevo—"siding with the Muslims," because they were the minority who were being attacked by Christians on the Serb side in this area. And it worried me. It worried me that I was being accused of this. I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe I'd forgotten what objectivity was.
But then I started to understand that what people wanted was actually not to do anything—not to step in, not to change the situation, not to find a solution. And so, their fake news at that time, their lie at that time—including our government's, our democratically elected government's, with values and principles of human rights—their lie was to say that all sides are equally guilty, that this has been centuries of ethnic hatred, whereas we knew that wasn't true, that one side had decided to kill, slaughter and ethnically cleanse another side. So that is where, for me, I understood that objectivity means giving all sides an equal hearing and talking to all sides, but not treating all sides equally, not creating a forced moral equivalence or a factual equivalence. And when you come up against that crisis point in situations of grave violations of international and humanitarian law, if you don't understand what you're seeing, if you don't understand the truth and if you get trapped in the fake news paradigm, then you are an accomplice. And I refuse to be an accomplice to genocide.
So there have always been these propaganda battles, and you were courageous in taking the stand you took back then. Today, there's a whole new way, though, in which news seems to be becoming fake. How would you characterize that?
Well, look—I am really alarmed. And everywhere I look, you know, we're buffeted by it. Obviously, when the leader of the free world, when the most powerful person in the entire world, which is the president of the United States—this is the most important, most powerful country in the whole world, economically, militarily, politically in every which way—and it seeks to, obviously, promote its values and power around the world. So we journalists, who only seek the truth—I mean, that is our mission—we go around the world looking for the truth in order to be everybody's eyes and ears, people who can't go out in various parts of the world to figure out what's going on about things that are vitally important to everybody's health and security. So when you have a major world leader accusing you of fake news, it has an exponential ripple effect. And what it does is, it starts to chip away at not just our credibility, but at people's minds—people who look at us, and maybe they're thinking, "Well, if the president of the United States says that, maybe somewhere there's a truth in there."
Presidents have always been critical of the media—
Not in this way.
So, to what extent—
I mean, someone a couple years ago looking at the avalanche of information pouring through Twitter and Facebook and so forth, might have said, "Look, our democracies are healthier than they've ever been. There's more news than ever. Of course presidents will say what they'll say, but everyone else can say what they will say. What's not to like? How is there an extra danger?"
So, I wish that was true. I wish that the proliferation of platforms upon which we get our information meant that there was a proliferation of truth and transparency and depth and accuracy. But I think the opposite has happened. You know, I'm a little bit of a Luddite, I will confess. Even when we started to talk about the information superhighway, which was a long time ago, before social media, Twitter and all the rest of it, I was actually really afraid that that would put people into certain lanes and tunnels and have them just focusing on areas of their own interest instead of seeing the broad picture. And I'm afraid to say that with algorithms, with logarithms, with whatever the "-ithms" are that direct us into all these particular channels of information, that seems to be happening right now. I mean, people have written about this phenomenon. People have said that yes, the internet came, its promise was to exponentially explode our access to more democracy, more information, less bias, more varied information. And, in fact, the opposite has happened. And so that, for me, is incredibly dangerous. And again, when you are the president of this country and you say things, it also gives leaders in other undemocratic countries the cover to affront us even worse, and to really whack us—and their own journalists—with this bludgeon of fake news.
To what extent is what happened, though, in part, just an unintended consequence, that the traditional media that you worked in had this curation-mediation role, where certain norms were observed, certain stories would be rejected because they weren't credible, but now that the standard for publication and for amplification is just interest, attention, excitement, click, "Did it get clicked on?" "Send it out there!" and that's what's—is that part of what's caused the problem?
I think it's a big problem, and we saw this in the election of 2016, where the idea of "clickbait" was very sexy and very attractive, and so all these fake news sites and fake news items were not just haphazardly and by happenstance being put out there, there's been a whole industry in the creation of fake news in parts of Eastern Europe, wherever, and you know, it's planted in real space and in cyberspace. So I think that, also, the ability of our technology to proliferate this stuff at the speed of sound or light, just about—we've never faced that before. And we've never faced such a massive amount of information which is not curated by those whose profession leads them to abide by the truth, to fact-check and to maintain a code of conduct and a code of professional ethics.
Many people here may know people who work at Facebook or Twitter and Google and so on. They all seem like great people with good intention—let's assume that. If you could speak with the leaders of those companies, what would you say to them?
Well, you know what—I'm sure they are incredibly well-intentioned, and they certainly developed an unbelievable, game-changing system, where everybody's connected on this thing called Facebook. And they've created a massive economy for themselves and an amazing amount of income. I would just say, "Guys, you know, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee and look at what's happening to us right now." Mark Zuckerberg wants to create a global community. I want to know: What is that global community going to look like? I want to know where the codes of conduct actually are. Mark Zuckerberg said—and I don't blame him, he probably believed this—that it was crazy to think that the Russians or anybody else could be tinkering and messing around with this avenue. And what have we just learned in the last few weeks? That, actually, there has been a major problem in that regard, and now they're having to investigate it and figure it out. Yes, they're trying to do what they can now to prevent the rise of fake news, but, you know, it went pretty unrestricted for a long, long time. So I guess I would say, you know, you guys are brilliant at technology; let's figure out another algorithm. Can we not?
An algorithm that includes journalistic investigation—
I don't really know how they do it, but somehow, you know—filter out the crap!
And not just the unintentional—but the deliberate lies that are planted by people who've been doing this as a matter of warfare for decades. The Soviets, the Russians—they are the masters of war by other means, of hybrid warfare. And this is a—this is what they've decided to do. It worked in the United States, it didn't work in France, it hasn't worked in Germany. During the elections there, where they've tried to interfere, the president of France right now, Emmanuel Macron, took a very tough stand and confronted it head on, as did Angela Merkel.
There's some hope to be had from some of this, isn't there? That the world learns. We get fooled once, maybe we get fooled again, but maybe not the third time. Is that true?
I mean, let's hope. But I think in this regard that so much of it is also about technology, that the technology has to also be given some kind of moral compass. I know I'm talking nonsense, but you know what I mean.
We need a filter-the-crap algorithm with a moral compass—
There you go.
I think that's good.
No—"moral technology." We all have moral compasses—moral technology.
I think that's a great challenge.
Talk just a minute about leadership. You've had a chance to speak with so many people across the world. I think for some of us—I speak for myself, I don't know if others feel this—there's kind of been a disappointment of: Where are the leaders? So many of us have been disappointed—Aung San Suu Kyi, what's happened recently, it's like, "No! Another one bites the dust." You know, it's heartbreaking.
Who have you met who you have been impressed by, inspired by?
Well, you talk about the world in crisis, which is absolutely true, and those of us who spend our whole lives immersed in this crisis—I mean, we're all on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So it's pretty stressful right now. And you're right—there is this perceived and actual vacuum of leadership, and it's not me saying it, I ask all these—whoever I'm talking to, I ask about leadership. I was speaking to the outgoing president of Liberia today, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, who—in three weeks' time, will be one of the very rare heads of an African country who actually abides by the constitution and gives up power after her prescribed term. She has said she wants to do that as a lesson. But when I asked her about leadership, and I gave a quick-fire round of certain names, I presented her with the name of the new French president, Emmanuel Macron. And she said—I said, "So what do you think when I say his name?" And she said, "Shaping up potentially to be a leader to fill our current leadership vacuum." I thought that was really interesting. Yesterday, I happened to have an interview with him. I'm very proud to say, I got his first international interview. It was great. It was yesterday. And I was really impressed. I don't know whether I should be saying that in an open forum, but I was really impressed.
And it could be just because it was his first interview, but—I asked questions, and you know what? He answered them!
There was no spin, there was no wiggle and waggle, there was no spend-five-minutes- to-come-back-to-the-point. I didn't have to keep interrupting, which I've become rather renowned for doing, because I want people to answer the question. And he answered me, and it was pretty interesting. And he said—
Tell me what he said.
No, no, you go ahead.
You're the interrupter, I'm the listener.
What'd he say?
OK. You've talked about nationalism and tribalism here today. I asked him, "How did you have the guts to confront the prevailing winds of anti-globalization, nationalism, populism when you can see what happened in Brexit, when you could see what happened in the United States and what might have happened in many European elections at the beginning of 2017?" And he said, "For me, nationalism means war. We have seen it before, we have lived through it before on my continent, and I am very clear about that." So he was not going to, just for political expediency, embrace the, kind of, lowest common denominator that had been embraced in other political elections. And he stood against Marine Le Pen, who is a very dangerous woman.
Last question for you, Christiane. Tell us about ideas worth spreading. If you could plant one idea into the minds of everyone here, what would that be?
I would say really be careful where you get your information from; really take responsibility for what you read, listen to and watch; make sure that you go to the trusted brands to get your main information, no matter whether you have a wide, eclectic intake, really stick with the brand names that you know, because in this world right now, at this moment right now, our crises, our challenges, our problems are so severe, that unless we are all engaged as global citizens who appreciate the truth, who understand science, empirical evidence and facts, then we are just simply going to be wandering along to a potential catastrophe.
So I would say, the truth, and then I would come back to Emmanuel Macron and talk about love. I would say that there's not enough love going around. And I asked him to tell me about love. I said, "You know, your marriage is the subject of global obsession."
"Can you tell me about love? What does it mean to you?" I've never asked a president or an elected leader about love. I thought I'd try it. And he said—you know, he actually answered it. And he said, "I love my wife, she is part of me, we've been together for decades." But here's where it really counted, what really stuck with me. He said, "It is so important for me to have somebody at home who tells me the truth."
So you see, I brought it home. It's all about the truth.
So there you go. Truth and love. Ideas worth spreading.
Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much.