Beyond fact-checking: the media, populism and post-truth politics

Why do people want to believe what they do? They want meaningful lives. Why do it this way? A report-back from the Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy 2017.

Andries du Toit
1 December 2017

Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Jon Corzine, former Goldman Sachs Group Inc.co-chairman, attending a news conference on Capitol Hill, 2001.MCT/ABACA/Press Association. All rights reserved. openDemocracy is a media partner of the World Forum for Democracy 2017: the subject this year is 'populism'. In the run-up to that event in early November, we asked what kind of media and politics we need "to re-connect to citizens, make informed choices and function optimally in 21st century democracy." Andries du Toit was one of three rapporteurs summing up the debate in the event's closing session.

Good morning, Director-General, colleagues and friends. Thank you for the opportunity to speak about my impressions and thoughts as rapporteur at this meeting over the last few days.

We all know that the media are essential to the functioning of democracy: ensuring that citizens are well informed and making it possible to hold elected representatives and officials to account.

Over the last few days many voices at this meeting have warned us that all is not well.

Parallel universes

One of the clearest signs of trouble we have discussed has been the rising tide of what has been called ‘fake news’. This is about much more than the spreading of disinformation or lies, even if it's on an industrial scale by troll-factories or automated ‘bots’. Rather, on many occasions in recent years it has seemed as if the very coin of truth or journalistic facticity is becoming devalued, so that otherwise powerful media organizations and organised political parties appear unable to gain traction or to push back effectively against untruths & half truths, unable to focus public attention away from distractions to the realities that matter. In recent years it has seemed as if the very coin of truth or journalistic facticity is becoming devalued.

Another even more disturbing sign is that of late it seems that we can no longer rely on any common ground of shared assumptions or undisputed facts that would allow us to adjudicate disagreements. Instead, rival political groupings inhabit parallel universes, “echo chambers” where they see or hear nothing except that which confirms their own views. And the national public media institutions that are supposed to build social cohesion and provide the frame for these discussions are beleaguered or enlisted on one side.

Not surprisingly therefore, much of the discussion here at the World Forum for Democracy has focused on what is to be done. In the labs that were held yesterday, delegates proposed and discussed a wide range of imaginative and resourceful plans. We heard about apps and browser extensions that deconstruct the filters that social media impose on us, and that encourage people to ‘read outside their bubble’. We heard about collaborative initiatives such as Africa Check, Crosscheck and EuCheck where media institutions and journalists work together to respond in real time to combat false rumours. We saw presentations by courageous groups of critical and investigative journalists such as the Union of Informed Citizens in Armenia, or The Insider in Russia pushing back to expose the lies of politicians, often at risk of their careers or lives.

These are all creative and important initiatives.  Yet I am concerned that they don’t go far enough. Particularly not when the key issue is to do something about the challenge of authoritarian populism. 

Poisoning the well

We have heard at this conference that the disturbing reality is that there are more and more places in the world and sectors of society where fact checking simply has no impact,  because many people simply don’t care any more. Yesterday, Matjas Gruden asked an arresting question. How do we make sense of the fact that we are in a world where there are significant numbers of people who really believe – and who want to  believe! - that Hilary Clinton was running a Satanic paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington? This is merely the most extreme version of a whole genre of myths and conspiracy theories circulating in society that seem immune to counterfactual challenge. In Europe and the US, those conspiracy theories involve the Illuminati, the Rothshilds, the CIA. In my own country they are likely to invoke Anton Rupert, George Soros, and ‘white monopoly capital’. In all cases, they involve powerful and compelling stories that not only purport to explain the world around us, but that also systematically ‘poison the well’ against competing versions of the truth: delegitimising or questioning the trustworthiness of our central media institutions, the veracity of science, the authority of experts, and the legitimacy of universities. These kinds of narratives find adherents because they make some kind of emotional and political sense. 

The reason for this is not that people are naïve or poorly educated. Rather, it appears that these kinds of narratives find adherents because they make some kind of emotional and political sense. 

Making sense of the world

Here, I believe we need to remind this assembly of an important aspect of authoritarian populism. It is about much more than centralising authoritarian power in the name of ‘the people’.  Rather, populism is a way of making sense of the world

Populist discourse stitches together a wide range of popular grievances into a coherent story that confers a powerful sense of social belonging; a sense of an ‘us’ that is beleaguered and marginalised.  Once it has been established, that embattled sense of belonging becomes the lens through which everything is viewed.

In the first panel discussion yesterday, a truly alarming input was provided by Prof Anna Krasteva of the New Bulgarian University.  She argued that in some parts of the world, we are seeing the rejection of what I like to call modern liberal technopolitics – the politics of the representation and adjudication of competing material interests, usually by party structures and within parliaments. It its place she described the rise of a new kind of symbolic politics, a politics of the body, a politics of aestheticised and valourised belonging; a kind of nihilistic hyper-political anti-politics that abandons discussion of actual policies in favour of the enactment of authenticity. We are seeing ... a new kind of symbolic politics... that abandons discussion of actual policies in favour of the enactment of authenticity

This is a phenomenon not addressed by the contestation or checking of facts, because within the rules of this new game, facts are irrelevant. In fact, by your ceaseless checking of facts, by your outrage at the lies of Zuma or Duterte or Erdogan or Trump you are merely indicating your membership of the liberal elite.

Your outrage

In many of the discussions yesterday, my sense was that many delegates preferred not to engage with this prospect. Let us leave the extremes to the extremists, they said; let’s try to address and convert those who are closer to the centre. 

Now certainly we need to have rational political debate where it still can be had. We need to make our media institutions strong so that they can withstand and challenge this trance of belonging. 

But I think we ignore at our peril the disaffected and alienated voices who are rejecting the key connective institutions in our societies. We need to find ways of getting people to care about the truth – and about the views of others –  again.

Here, it is important that we go beyond checking facts to challenging myths. The simple stories of belonging created by populism need to compete with other, more inclusive ways of thinking about identity and about who ‘we’ are. 

We also need to understand that people are not only passive consumers of news. We need for our media and media platforms to become places where people can have honest conversations, where they can take the risk of trying to hear each other. We need for our media and media platforms to become places where people can have honest conversations.

But most importantly, we need to ensure that politics is not just an empty charade. The writer and art critic John Berger once said that our present day politicians are like people who sit chatting away on the front step of their house, while thieves walk in and out of the house, removing our valuables. It’s important to remember that there are good reasons for the groundswell of popular disaffection. We are living in a time in which the eight richest men on the planet own as much as the bottom three billion.

We need to remember that it is not only the disaffected masses that are out of control.  It is also the runaway train of financial capital and powerful information technology companies who treat the populations of the world, not as citizens, not as political actors, but as nodes in a revenue stream.   

The real challenge of politics today is to address the causes of the economic inequality at the root of the wave of populist disaffection. That is the crisis that our news media and our truth telling has to focus on.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData