Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) holds a grand ceremony to welcome U.S. President Donald Trump at the square outside the east gate of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 9, 2017. Lan Hongguang/Xinhua News Agency/Press Association. All rights reserved. A political virus is spreading around the world. It is flaring up in a vast number of democratic countries across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. While varying from place to place, its symptoms include a toxic cocktail of fake news, deep polarization, elite shamelessness, and the degradation and delegitimizing of civic institutions. While there is growing agreement on the diagnosis, governments and societies are far from immune.
The effects of the virus are the same everywhere. For one, wary uncertainty and suspicion now accompanies virtually every topic and debate. The basis for a liberal society – facts, science, reason and respect – is coming under assault. Consequently, trust – the glue that holds democratic polities together – is coming unstuck. Instead fear, anger and discrimination – the fuel of autocracy – is taking hold. Civil discourse is being overtaken by a cascade of lies, including lies told by those who occupy the highest political offices.
Brazen falsehoods are defended by populist leaders and their supporters as "alternative facts". Information that is considered to be politically inconvenient, including stories generated by respected news outlets, are instead labeled as "fake news". The diffusion of total fictions is accelerated by hyper-partisan political networks and social media platforms that thrive on tribalism and conspiracy. A sizable number of citizens are prepared to consume such information uncritically, feeding a relentless cycle of lies and outrage.
Alternate narratives are no longer fringe – they are increasingly dominating the news cycle of democratic countries. What matters less is whether these stories are "true" so long as they are compelling. In the process, they are reinforcing the position of one tribe versus another. Through repetition, false narratives are reshaping the world view of many citizens. This false consciousness is especially troubling at a time when the international liberal order that shaped security, trade and governance for the past 70 years is coming under assault.
Two highly misleading narratives
To be sure, some alternate facts are dramatically more threatening than others. There are at least two widely circulating narratives that while dominating the headlines, do not line-up with the facts on the ground. Yet they each have profound implications for the integrity of the future global order – whether it is one that reasserts liberal internationalism and multilateralism or, rather, a dangerous return to a mercantilist and ‘spheres of influence’ world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The first false narrative is the fiction-generating administration of US President Donald Trump. Not only does he fib remorselessly and gleefully feed the cycle of falsehoods — his politics are a patchwork of improvisation, threats, and leaks. Fact checkers have shown that he has lied more than 2,000 times since his inauguration. The Trump team has also shown itself to be singularly dysfunctional. More than 250 senior administration positions are still unfilled, and hundreds more seasoned civil servants are leaving.
Under Trump, US foreign policy has been reduced to economic nationalism while domestic policy can be summed up in two words - explosive debt. Despite failing to deliver on most campaign promises and set to borrow over one trillion dollars in 2018, the President and his sycophants instead loudly trumpet their "tremendous" outputs. And in spite of the best efforts of America's liberal media, Trump is gradually being normalized. An increasing number of Americans are prepared to tolerate his views, even if it requires holding their noses. Part of the reason for their acquiescence is that the global economy is booming.
The second fiction relates to China and its purported willingness to serve as the custodian of the global liberal order in the place of the US. It is true that China has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past two decades, and that the country is undergoing a radical transformation. China’s GDP is projected to surpass the US’s by 2025. There is little doubt that the center of global economic gravity is shifting eastwards. This monumental transition is being hastened by China’s massive one trillion dollar One Belt One Road initiative that stretches across over 60 countries, linking them all back to Beijing.
A few days before Trump's inauguration in 2017, president Xi Jinping mounted a forceful defence of globalization and free trade. Elites breathed a sigh of relief as they listened to his 2017 speech at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos. Jinping denounced protectionism as being akin to “locking oneself in a dark room”, even declaring his support for the Paris climate agreement (which Trump later abandoned).
It was the most ironic of displays: in reality, China relies heavily on protectionism and is determined that its national companies dominate the domestic market. China may well play a role in preserving elements of the economic order, but only insofar as it bends in its favor.
Put simply, both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are pretending to be something they are not. The former is pretending to be a Republican president while the latter is pretending to support a dynamic global liberal order. The politics of deception and shamelessness are hardly confined to the leaders of the US and China. Whether it is the supporters of Brexit in the UK and Duterte in the Philippines or the prime minister of Israel and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, false narratives are the order of the day. But by virtue of their position and influence, Trump and Jiping are sucking up all the oxygen in the room.
The ability of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and others to thrive depends on an obedient media. In the case of Trump, a fawning right-wing media ecosystem, together with an army of Twitter bots, is bolstering (and in some cases directing) his agenda. Meanwhile, progressives are wasting their energies on a relentless outpouring of outrage at each of Trump’s tweets or provocations. The financial media is seduced by the economic heft of Asia’s resurgent superpower. Global elites are likewise complicit, fortified by a combination of hubris, amnesia, and greed. The US economy is growing, even while the body politic of democracies and global institutions that underpin them are growing sicker by the day.
Signs of pushback
There is an unlikely silver lining to the spread of fakery in our political conversations. Awareness and concern are growing about fake news, digital propaganda, the role of social media companies in facilitating it, and the ways reactionaries are using fake news to delegitimize institutions. There is also increasing recognition of the ways in which lies spread on the Internet are corroding democracies by sowing mistrust and animosity. There are signs of pushback from citizens just about everywhere.
One of the ways people are inoculating themselves from this plague is by investing in responsible journalism. The number of subscribers to credible news outlets is skyrocketing in the wake of the 2016 US election. There has also been a remarkable spike in media-led and independent fact-checking groups across the US and Europe. Although the Trump administration continues to discredit responsible journalists and diligently fact-checked reporting, the push-back is unprecedented.
There are other ways that fake news and alternative facts are being challenged. While at risk from backlash and fake news, the #Metoo movement is dramatically reshaping political debate and empowering women to seek elected office. What’s more, once lauded social media platforms are increasingly taken to task for their role in allowing (and in some cases abetting) the infection of polity with the spread of fake news. Calls are growing for greater regulation and breaking up their power. There is a perceptible shift in public mood, and the search for a vaccine to the deception virus is in full swing.
This article forms part of the Phil Lind Initiative series on the future of the liberal order. The series features Ed Luce, Steven Pinker, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Francis Fukuyama, Susan Rice, and Misha Glenny. It is hosted by UBC's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.