From Fake to Fact – and then?

Do all of us need to move outside our ‘comfort zones’ and self-imposed ‘echo chambers’, both  to come up with better diagnoses of the populist challenge, and to define constructive political action collectively ?  

Georgios Kolliarakis
4 December 2017

Portrait statue of Plato along the balustrade of main reading room. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Wikicommons/ Carol M. Highsmith archive. Some rights reserved.This online exchange put together by Rosemary Bechler and myself has mobilised a great number of engaged and passionate articles (see here). The trigger for that endeavour here and also in the related ‘live’ roundtable discussion in the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy 2017 in Strasbourg, 8-10 November, has been the frustrating observation that currently facts do not matter as much as they should, either in public discourse addressing burning problems, or in the design of policies.

Behind that diagnosis, lies, however, a much older clash: the clash between different ways of accessing trustworthy knowledge, particularly when it comes to issues of great moment and consequence for our everyday lives as citizens, such as those concerning social policy, education and employment, security, or collective identity. To be sure, this clash is scarcely visible most of the time: many of us are continuing to maintain the same beliefs and opinions, while regularly ignoring how and why others have diverging beliefs and opinions. Yet, this results in us living in different, and not shared realities. 

Theocracy, democracy, technocracy

If we look at the venerable forms of knowledge we rely upon to identify the true ‘facts’, then we can roughly distinguish at least three types of knowledge: religious knowledge, political knowledge, and scientific knowledge. The paths leading there are distinct – although they often intersect – and I would describe them as belief-driven, power- and interest-driven, and methodology-driven, respectively. The first one is also the oldest in the history of humankind, drawing its legitimacy from an externalised, metaphysical entity; the second, political knowledge, started to differentiate itself from the first via deliberations about collective decision-making within a given community around 2,500-3,000 years ago; last, ‘scientific’, methodology-based knowledge about patterns and mechanisms in physical and social phenomena also began to develop at that time. But it really took off, in terms of influence, some 300 years ago in the western world.

The multiple tensions among – let us dub those three ways of making sense of reality, Theocracy, Democracy, and Technocracy – still define peoples’ lives all around the world, albeit to different degrees and in different mixtures in various nation state contexts. Since we consciously want to avoid narrowing down the discussion only to fake news in social media, we will focus in this commentary upon the interplay between those ‘knowledge’ kinds and their interplay with decision-making, particularly within contentious public policy domains, such as those on refugees, security, extremism, and radicalisation, that have been stirring major controversies. In the following, we will briefly sketch out the general context, and single out three dimensions of the debate conducted so far:

First, the current mismatch between the supply and the demand sides for evidence and facts. These are shaped by self-inflicted echo chambers in a polarised landscape, and they result in a lose-lose game for all sides.  

Second, the widespread conflation of concepts such as ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘facts’, and (actionable) ‘knowledge’. All these impact differently on meaning-giving and decision-making processes of different individuals, social groups, or institutions.

Third, the dilemma of how to regain trust by engaging with fake, distortive, manipulative acts, and those responsible for diffusing them, given the slow processes that fact-finding and democratic deliberation involve.

The current context: ‘post-fact’ politics in controversial fields of public policy

‘Post-fact’ politics are prevalent particularly in contested fields of public policy, such as social and minority rights, external relations and migration/refugee affairs, and, extremism and radicalisation. The relatively high level of uncertainty, of complexity, and above all of value divergences in those fields has proved very vulnerable to manipulation and distortion in public discourse. Such discourses promote simplistic, slick, and for that reason, catchy narratives, which blend out uncomfortable facts, disqualify opposing views, and polarise public opinion, in order to advance more restrictive legislation, and more centralised control of opinion.

Recent and ongoing efforts in that direction in states such as the US, Turkey, Poland, or Hungary, among many others, pay sad testimony to that. The intensity of aggressive ‘hate’ rhetoric towards social and ethnic groups, and the ‘scapegoating’ of political elites, governments, media and international bodies, such as the European Union, has reached unprecedented levels. What is more, democratic values and civil liberties, the rule of law and the tripartite checks-and-balances among the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicative, have been increasingly undermined in a number of cases. Diversity, pluralism and fundamental rights seem currently to be under serious attack in a worrying number of democratic states. 

The supply/demand discrepancy in the market for facts

Cherry-picking, distortion, or silencing of evidence in such partisan ‘information wars’ is nothing new. However, the relationship between science, policy-making, and society has entered a new and salient phase: given the proliferation of fake news via social media, and the spread and ‘normalisation’ of uncivil behaviours in the public sphere, the need for evidence-based resistance has become urgent as seldom before.

The demand, however, is not always there. Political opportunism, along with ideological conformity to party politics, obstructs a culture of evidence-informed policy committed to the benefit of society. On the supply side, knowledge production sites, such as universities, are often unsurprisingly reluctant to mix with practitioners in order to define and address societal challenges together.

Whenever relevant, robust, and timely research has been available to inform future policy-making, or to warn against risky trends, e.g. the political repercussions of socio-economic inequalities, or the unintended negative consequences of counter-terrorism policies, such uncomfortable evidence, critical to dominant political agendas, has often found itself up against a brick wall.

This results in a lose-lose game, since both researchers, particularly from the socio-economic sciences and humanities, are often discredited for not foreseeing ‘crises’, or for not delivering relevant insights and remedies. But policy makers too miss the chance to design effective and sustainable policies to benefit their constituents and vindicate their own careers in positions of trust. Both capacity and will to engage are necessary functions if we are to argue with facts incompatible with long-held beliefs, and mainstream master narratives.

Particularly in polarised public policy arenas, dealing with social welfare, the inclusion and integration of migrants, counter-terrorism and civic liberties, the whole range of societal stakeholders involved, whether they are from policymaking, civil society, the media, or academia – tend to talk to their peers, but not so much to each other. They generate, in a non-intended and non-anticipated manner ‘echo-chambers’ for themselves, without always being conscious that this is taking place.

This effect highlights the need for all of us to move outside our ‘comfort zones’, to enable us to come up with a valid diagnosis of the problem, let alone define desirable solutions, and appropriate actions to get us there.   

Conflation of ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘facts’, and ‘knowledge’

We live in an age not so much reconciled to the ‘end of history’, as contemplating all meta-narratives with incredulity. In such an era of extreme divergences in opinions and perspectives, including a variety of voices hitherto subdued or concealed, we cannot expect any of the above knowledge categories to have an easy passage. The question arises whether we are equipped as societies to cope with the resulting complexity – for example, how to deal with all those religious, political, or scientific sources of knowledge validation? Should citizens be encouraged, as a starting point, to acknowledge that facts are, also, socially fabricated? And that knowledge can never claim an objective vantage point, since it is always institutionally sanctioned, and can also within democracies, at times, be controlled, suppressed, and even destroyed?  

What, more often than not, gets blurred in any debate among politicians, civil society representatives, journalists, and scholars are the specific ways in which ‘data’, ‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘facts’, and ‘knowledge’ are distinct from each other. These are epistemic artefacts with different scientific, political, or legal pedigrees. Each one is associated with very different conditions (and risks) for making sense of, and making use of what we call ‘reality’.

Data are for many the ‘raw givens’, which, e.g. in the current hype about Big Data Analytics, are expected to deliver reliable hints about peoples’ behaviour and even prognosticate trends. In contrast to that, information, differentiates itself according to selected criteria from all the rest (e.g. ‘noise’), by linking certain data with meaning, and furnishing them with intelligible contours and content, so that eventually they ‘in-form’.

Scientific research is aiming at more: Evidence, as the result of methodological analysis and synthesis of data and information, entails patterns and mechanisms that render visible the dynamics of a phenomenon, physical or social. To give an example, there has been evidence about the correlation of tobacco with cancer since the end of the 1950s: yet it was not until after decades that this validated evidence gained political traction and got legally codified into a range of bans. This turn in political attitude is what it took to embed the concrete evidence into a cultural, institutional, and organisational context, and ultimately transform it into a societal fact.

The issue with what we call ‘knowledge’ may be a little more complicated. On the one hand, it is strongly linked with experience, it is a ‘lived’ fact, while on the other, community-held beliefs, or peer pressure, or trusted persons or institutions may strongly influence what we ‘know’. In an environment where there is a naïve attachment to the empirical ‘facts’, this can well be why evidence and facts can after all appear to many as not being credible or reliable. People are alarmed and even disillusioned when ‘facts’ contradict their own long held beliefs. But how do we equip our pluralist democracies with the skills citizens need to make sense of this sheer complexity?

We should resist blanket claims that ‘facts do not matter’. At different times to different audiences, facts can matter in many different ways. At their most systematically contested state, as in science, facts can be highly creative! But in highly politicized issues, such as global warming, or the linkage of refugees and terrorism, or that between neo-liberal policies and anti-EU populism, polarisation and enemy images have all too often replaced and displaced the nuanced pursuit of facts. Civilised democracy should not only tolerate, but, moreover, provide the space for contestation. Robbed of conversation, we are left with little but power or ideological conflicts, dressed in whatever garb comes to hand.

How to engage with populists without undermining trust?

Research often produces insights with an expiry date, until new, more valid and reliable knowledge challenges the old nostrums. Despite this lack of a lasting certainty, inherent in the scientific knowledge production process, research seems still to be indispensable in providing alternative diagnoses and paths for action, in questioning the goals and objectives of political endeavours, and not least, in resisting ideological truisms, or distortion of facts through vested particular interests.

Assuming responsibility and rebuilding trust in the interface between politics, research, and society is key. Yet, fact-finding and democratic deliberation, those two weapons against arbitrariness, are awfully slow compared to the speed with which intentionally fake information travels and gets itself endorsed in the public sphere. In the absence of better alternatives, we should nevertheless, invest and foster spaces for exchange and confrontation among holders of opposing ‘truths’ within a democratic setting. This would be a step toward breaking out of the many echo chambers we occupy in the current landscape, even if our hands get a little dirty in the process.

Politics in open democracies is bound to remain a controversial arena, yet, the struggle to defend pluralism, diversity, and the resolve to counter racist, sexist, homophobic, and fascist doctrines is a necessary component of the equation. This online exchange here, but also the debates in the context of the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy, are somehow reminiscent of the dilemma identified quite some time ago by Plato (primarily in his dialogues Politeia, Protagoras, and Kriton). Should good governance be entrusted to the decisions of the Knowledgeable, of the Many, or of the Powerful? The negotiation process of informing policies serving the public good is and will remain, for the foreseeable future, bumpy and long.  

The self-defence capacities of democracy depend upon free, yet accountable expression of diverse views, but, crucially, also upon providing evidence and justifying values to support those views. Populism of the extremist kind that attacks the body politic resembles, in this respect, an auto-immune, self-destroying disease of democracy. Instead of resorting to suppression, we should perhaps be strengthening other immune reflexes, such as those related to better fact circulation, and to more inclusive deliberation. This, to be sure, would not eliminate controversies, but it could help many more of us to navigate better in the stormy seas to come.

All the above notwithstanding, facts need to get contextualized in experienced realities and linked to peoples’ concerns and needs, if they are to speak to their hearts and minds. Only then will they become a trusted ground for taking action, and for making a positive difference to peoples’ lives.

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