Countering the Radical Right

Can anything be done against radical right misinformation?

Can there be a better solution than spreading awareness and counter-narratives?

Matthias Wasser
12 May 2020, 12.01am
participant in a rally in Frankfurt, Germany, wearing an Aluminum hat. 2 May 2020
Picture by Boris Roessler/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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In her recent article on openDemocracy, Miranda Christou argues that the radical right does three things: spreads (dangerously) false information, recontextualizes acknowledged facts and research, and spreads narratives to lay doubt at the ability of others to offer their own narratives. She is right about this. But this is what everyone does! After all, we’re doing the third thing now by emphasizing reasons not to trust the radical right.

In the US, for instance, the liberal center has come to be caught in the grips of a belief that a vast conspiracy involving the Republican Party working in concert with a number of foreign actors, including a belief among a majority of Democrats (almost certainly moreso among centrists than the left of the party) that Russian hackers literally falsified the results of the 2016 election - something no mainstream news media outlet ever says outright (just heavily hints at).

Beliefs within this frame end up getting protected by suggestions not epistemically far from other self-protecting conspiracy theories - that those with alternate opinions are Russian bots, and so on. There are, of course, more “relaxed” versions of this set of beliefs that are both literally conspiracy theories and very plausibly true. One example is that President Donald Trump may have illegally sought opposition research from foreign intelligence agencies, and so on. But then this same distinction could (indeed, should) be made with respect to everyone else’s belief-complex, resulting in just the mix of alternate knowledge and alternate interpretative matrix that Miranda Christou diagnoses in the radical right.

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The point here is not that the liberal center is particularly bad - I choose them as an example precisely because they have the reputation, earned or not, for being the “most reasonable” part of the political spectrum, the place where prudence and realism triumph over fanaticism and groupthink. The point is that when we focus on the formal qualities of popular beliefs, we see similar things across the political spectrum, driven simultaneously by the inevitable challenges of modelling a galaxies-sized world into a three-pound brain - thus requiring the selection of sufficiently interesting facts and their reduction into patterns that explain them - and features that are more contingent but little less escapable - such as the tendency of almost everyone to share news, or apparent news, that confirms their opinions without checking to confirm the original article.

Suppose that I told you that someone was spreading Covid-19 - deliberately, no less. Should there be legal consequences?

In the midst of all these equivocations, I should perhaps emphasize that the truth really does exist, that the barriers to it are epistemic rather than ontological, and that even the epistemic barriers are non-insurmountable - that (for instance) it really is or is not the case that human carbon emissions are driving dangerous increases in global temperatures, and that it’s easier and there are more direct motives for industrialists to subsidize a small number of climate skeptics than for anyone to create a false scientific consensus in favor of global warming.

What is the proper response?

Suppose that I told you that someone was spreading Covid-19 - deliberately, no less. Should there be legal consequences? Probably! After all, it’s a clear harm to others, and most jurisdictions are already punishing people who (typically for boring reasons such as carelessness) violate social distancing guidelines.

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The radical right has always been good at spreading misinformation; now they might be spreading Covid-19.

Miranda Christou never proposes a solution to the problem of radical right misinformation, much less a punitive one. But the framing - the radical right promotes misinformation, which promotes the virus - makes it easiest to look to the state or to effectively state-like institutions (platform monopolies, &c.) to eliminate this by fiat. Ironically, this can mirror the medicalized discourse of the radical right itself, which sees foreign ideas and people as “infections” on the national “body.”

Unfortunately, responding in this way can be dangerous as well as ineffective - and most of the ways of making it less dangerous make it less effective and vice-versa. Highly rule-bound censorship has a tendency to be quite ineffective, as the rules are easily gotten around. For instance, Germany has very strict rules against explicit Nazi organizing, rules that have remained well-defined and contained enough not to be applied to other dissenting ideologies - however, it is precisely these features that have allowed not-technically-Nazi parties such as the National Democratic Party or AfD to spread.

Censorship that allows the censors great discretion can be quite effective - but then you are placing great power in the hands of the censors. Compare that to the parallel laws against Nazism that existed in East Germany. No one would be able to get around those by simply using some euphemisms and a different radially symmetric logo, but precisely the discretion that made such rules effective also made them trivially easy to deploy against any dissident.

Perhaps the worst of both worlds is in clampdowns that are ineffective, but provide just enough impression of official horror to lend a frisson of exciting rebellion to these disapproved sentiments. (Because its effects are invisible to the end-user, algorithmic “nudging” seems to be the solution least likely to create martyrs in this way, but the worries about its highly discretionary use would if anything be intensified.)

To that end, I should close with an avowal that I don’t know of a better solution to these informational problems than what Miranda Christou’s article is already doing - spreading awareness and counter-narratives. That is, of course, clearly insufficient, but it may be that outside of the domain of (say) economic policies that reduce the demand for radical right solutions, there may be little other room for maneuver.

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