Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy
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Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy

Mapping the Politics of Falsehood

Johan Farkas, Jannick Schou

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Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy

Mapping the Politics of Falsehood

Johan Farkas, Jannick Schou

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Western societies are under siege, as fake news, post-truth and alternative facts are undermining the very core of democracy. This dystopian narrative is currently circulated by intellectuals, journalists and policy makers worldwide. In this book, Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou deliver a comprehensive study of post-truth discourses. They critically map the normative ideas contained in these and present a forceful call for deepening democracy.

The dominant narrative of our time is that democracy is in a state of emergency caused by social media, changes to journalism and misinformed masses. This crisis needs to be resolved by reinstating truth at the heart of democracy, even if this means curtailing civic participation and popular sovereignty. Engaging with critical political philosophy, Farkas and Schou argue that these solutions neglect the fact that democracy has never been about truth alone: it is equally about the voice of the democratic people.

Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy delivers a sobering diagnosis of our times. It maps contemporary discourses on truth and democracy, foregrounds their normative foundations and connects these to historical changes within liberal democracies. The book will be of interest to students and scholars studying the current state and future of democracy, as well as to a politically informed readership.

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The Spirit of Democracy

On 25 April 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech to the joint houses of the US Congress. The speech was widely discussed in both American and European media and was noteworthy on several accounts. One of the ways in which Macron’s speech captured the political zeitgeist was in its quite direct confrontation with the issues of fake news, post-truth and misinformation. “To protect our democracies,” Macron (2018) argued in his speech,
We have to fight against the ever-growing virus of fake news, which exposes our people to irrational fear and imaginary risk . . . . Without reason, without truth, there is no real democracy because democracy is about true choices and rational decisions. The corruption of information is an attempt to corrode the very spirit of our democracies.
In this statement, Macron captured what has become some of the most pervasive arguments leveled across advanced democratic states by journalists, policy makers and academics alike: namely that democracies worldwide are facing a deep-seated crisis, as fake news, alternative facts and misinformation have come to dominate public spheres. This narrative has not only become prevalent in Europe – where the EU has set up a new specialized unit, East Stratcom, to counter the threat of “cyber-attacks” and “fake news” (Rankin, 2017) – but has also started to develop in other parts of the world: from India, where political leader, Subramanian Swamy, have described fake news as a “cancer” in need of “surgery” (Press Trust of India, 2018) and Malaysia, where controversial laws made “fake news” punishable with up to six years in prison (Ngui, 2018) to Kenya where legislation was implemented to stop “people who create fake news” and ensure that social media is only “used very responsibly” (Gathright, 2018). Indeed, it seems that fake news and post-truth have become ubiquitous concepts in contemporary discourses about the current state and future of democracy itself.
Fake news came to prominence following the tumultuous election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States in 2016. Trump famously started a rhetorical war on established media outlets by labeling them as fake news media (Farkas & Schou, 2018). However flashy and prominent in the public discourse, Trump’s outbursts only constitute the tip of the political iceberg. It is only a small fraction of a much more widespread set of discourses about misinformation and the decline of trust in previously dependable sources. According to these increasingly dominant narratives, scientific evidence is no longer trusted, with climate change being consistently labeled a hoax; medical evidence is sidestepped, as patients search for their own truth online; and “proper” journalism is under attack from fake news farms, troll factories and social bots. These discourses argue that the rise of digital and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has allowed for a seemingly endless flood of misinformation and deception to appear. The traditional gatekeepers of truth, such as editors, journalists and public intellectuals, have lost their monopoly on public issues, and in this process, so-called malicious actors and misinformed citizens have started to spread their own lies, deception, hate, propaganda and fake information on a previously unseen scale. According to a number of prominent public voices (including President Macron), all of these phenomena (and many more) are indicative of a new political age or paradigm: we are facing a post-truth society or a post-factual era in which Truth and Reason have been superseded by alternative facts and individual gut feelings. An epochal rupture in the very fabric of democracy is said to be taking place. The foundations of our political system is cracking up. Democracy is doomed, these voices tell us, unless these destructive trajectories are interrupted and changed for the better.
This book seeks to investigate and critically examine these contemporary narratives and discourses currently circulating at rapid speed in advanced liberal democracies. It does so by systematically detailing the emergence of what we term post-truth worlds. We use this concept to capture what is, in many ways, a still developing and expanding field of political struggle and contestation. This field is dedicated to explaining how, why and in what ways democratic practices are currently being put under dire pressure. Post-truth worlds can be seen as discursive formations or political imaginaries produced, disseminated and adopted throughout the Western world. With this book, we want to move into these worlds. We want to explore their internal discursive logics – the ideas they contain and the implicit normative premises that structure them. Why is it, we ask, that contemporary democratic states and societies are currently said to be facing an immense political crisis? How has the seemingly unstoppable barrage of fake news and alternative facts, flooding the gates of democracy and inaugurating an era of post-truth politics, been conceptualized, thought out and linked to wider political issues? What are the dominant normative ideas that continue to inform our current ways of thinking and acting upon questions of truth, democracy and politics?
These are the core questions investigated in this book. To answer these, the book uses a substantial amount of space to present an empirical mapping of the current terrain of political struggle over the stakes and ideas in contemporary post-truth worlds. Indeed, a large portion of this work is taken up by a relatively detailed discourse analysis of the kinds of claims made as to how democracy, truth and politics influence each other. In wanting to interrogate this still developing and continuously morphing politics of falsehood (Farkas & Schou, 2018), we are not interested in evaluating or assessing whether and to what extent current debates around truth, deception and democracy are accurate or not. We do not aim to say whether democracies really are facing a deep-seated “crisis of facts” (Davies, 2016). Instead, we want to take contemporary concerns seriously by understanding these as performative interventions seeking to give meaning to and influence our democratic moment in very particular ways. Whether they accurately represent the world or not is, for us, less important than the specific set of ideas they serve to produce and bring into existence. At its core, this book can thus be seen as a study in political conceptual history, albeit with a contemporary twist.
In proposing this shift in analytical focus – from looking at the conditions of truth to the discourses on truth – this book differentiates itself quite substantially from existing accounts of post-truth politics and similar concepts. Currently, there seems to be no shortage of commentators and intellectuals decrying the onslaught of fake news and post-truth. A veritable “industry of democratic defense” (Müller, 2018) seems to have sprung up, as commentators seek to combat the proclaimed post-truth crisis. A simple search on Amazon reveals an avalanche of newly published books with catchy titles. Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World (Ball, 2017), Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It (Davis, 2017), Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (d’Ancona, 2017) and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (Kakutani, 2018) are only a few examples of this expanding market. Similarly, large media outlets across Europe and the United States also disparage the new age of disinformation by publishing a wealth of articles, op-eds and comments dedicated precisely to the decline of democracy and truth. In the academic landscape, too, there is a growing movement dedicated to intervening in contemporary questions in and around fake news and post-truth. Notable contributions include titles such as Post-Truth (McIntyre, 2018), Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Fuller, 2018), Everything is Permitted, Restrictions Still Apply: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Social Dislocation, Narcissism, and Post Truth (Thurston, 2018) and Fake News: Falsehood, Fabrication and Fantasy in Journalism (McNair, 2018). As already hinted at, our aim with this book is to do something different than what is attempted in these existing interventions. We want to understand the new political discourses and grammar that are currently being constituted in and around questions of post-truth, fake news and alternative facts. Rather than saying what is true and what is fake, we want to turn this issue into an empirical set of questions. In this sense, we hope to take stock of the current debate surrounding these issues and unpack contemporary anxieties, visions and ideals about democracy and politics. In doing so, we might not only be able to understand our existing situation better, but we can also begin to carve out other ways of acting, intervening and thinking about truth and democracy going forward.

Democracy in Decline? Main Arguments

This book is an attempt to open up and enter post-truth worlds by exploring contemporary discussions on truth, democracy and falsehood, diving into their political logics and implicit normative ideas. We hope to think with and beyond these existing worlds. Based on systematic empirical mappings of the state of debate, we hope to produce new political openings, allowing us to envision other ways of discussing and imagining the state of democracy. In this sense, the book has both empirical and critical ambitions. It seeks to fuse detailed empirical studies with political philosophical discussions on democracy, politics and capitalism.
The critical ambition is in large part formed through an engagement with the existing state of affairs. An engagement that is both historical and political. Our aim is not to “debunk” or “expose” existing discourses as ideological veils or smokescreens, but, more modestly, to suggest that their rendering of the world is not complete. They have severe blind spots and lack crucial connections to wider historical developments that have been taking place since the middle of the last century. Not only does the notion of the post-truth era come with an implicit nostalgia for a “truth era” of democracy that never existed – thus erasing long historical struggles of disenfranchised groups, such as women and racial minorities, to be acknowledged as part of the democratic populace – but the idea of a post-truth era also fails to acknowledge that democracy, as a political system, has never only been about truth in the first place. In doing so, it neglects that contemporary democracies were by no means in a stable condition before the villains of post-truth suddenly knocked them off their course.
Formulated in a somewhat simplified way, this book will argue that current discourses about the fate of democracy have tended to presuppose a very particular understanding of what counts as true and false. In doing so, they have also tended to smuggle in an implicit, yet nonetheless incredibly pervasive, model of how proper democracies ought to function. They have claimed certain forms of power as being natural and supposedly inherent to democracy as a form of governance and political ordering. We will argue that this current way of thinking about democracy – which has become almost completely hegemonic in contemporary political debates – is both politically charged and normatively risky. What it essentially does is equate the idea of democracy with the ideas of reason, rationality and truth in an a priori fashion. This link remains an unquestioned assumption of post-truth worlds. In this narrative, what is threatening democracies worldwide is falsehood – pure and simple. Re-establishing the former (i.e., democracy) means eliminating the latter (i.e., falsehoods). It was precisely this link that Macron emphasized in his speech to the US Congress. In appealing to the very “spirit of democracy,” Macron condensed and spoke aloud what has otherwise remained a hidden political premise: that without reason, without truth, there is no real democracy because democracy is about true choices and rational decisions.
What are we to make of this formulation? It seems to set up a conceptual hierarchy, linking five key concepts together in a seemingly neat or even necessary chain: reason, truth, real, rational and democracy. What we take from this chain is the idea that democracy is truth, it is reason and it is, in a certain sense, the conditions of possibility for rationality itself. This type of argument is certainly not without precedent, either historically or in a contemporary light. Indeed, in what can best be described as a strange foretelling of the current state of democracy, the German philosopher and staunch defender of rationality, Jürgen Habermas, already argued in 2006 that “[a] ‘post-truth democracy’ . . . would no longer be a democracy” (Habermas, 2006, p. 18). Similarly, the history of democratic thought is littered with philosophers and political theorists linking democratic practices to truth telling, rationality, consensus and reason.
Yet, to claim that democracy is identical to truth – or at least the conditions of possibility for truth to exist – is also to take for granted the highly contested and complex history of democracy itself. It is to gloss over the fact that what democracy is has never been static or fixed, but continuously evolving and disputed. As is well known, the practice and idea of democracy constitutes what we might call an essentially contested concept whose contents and meaning has shifted greatly over time. Democracy has never just been one thing alone, instead remaining an object of political and social struggle. Even so, if one were to distill a common kernel from democracy, it is questionable whether this “spirit” should be linked to the terms invoked by Macron. Turning to the etymological roots of democracy reveals a different story, as David Held (2006, p. 1, original emphasis) so succinctly recounts:
While the word ‘democracy’ came into English in the sixteenth century from the French démocratie, its origins are Greek. ‘Democracy’ is derived from dēmokratía, the root meanings of which are demos (people) and kratos (rule). Democracy means a form of government in which, in contradistinction to monarchies and aristocracies, the people rule.
Beyond this initial definition, the history of democracy as a concept and a form of governance is complex and multilayered. Over time, competing definitions and ideas about the ways in which democracy is best organized has continued to roam back and forth. Different styles and forms of democracy have emphasized distinct patterns of political participation, rights and obligations. Though varying in terms of its concrete implementation, most liberal democracies today are based on representative forms of democracy in which citizens get to vote for (different) political parties at periodic elections. This is a system of delegation in which citizens, through their vote, elect politicians to represent their interests. While this style of democracy is dominant in advanced capitalist countries, often based on minimal forms of direct engagement and everyday political influence, it is certainly not the only way of organizing a democratic system. Indeed, throughout history there have been (and continue to be) much more direct forms of democracy, emphasizing rule by the people as not just a periodic occurrence but integral to everyday political practice.
This tension between a system of delegation and political expertise, on the one hand, and popular sovereignty and the people, on the other hand, continues to form an important dynamic in most liberal democracies. In this context, the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe (1993, 2005) has argued that liberal democracies are not constituted as singular orders but are carriers of what she terms as the democratic paradox. For Mouffe, this democratic paradox resides precisely in the fact that contemporary democracies are the product of liberalism – with its emphasis on rights, individualism and law – and the democratic tradition, which has historically been linked to ideas about equality, participation and popular sovereignty. Liberal democracy has to balance these counteracting forces, she suggests, and its success is in many ways dependent on its ability to do so.
We will return to these discussions on the political philosophy and history of democracy in the second part of the book. We will do so to give a critical response to contemporary ideas about a crisis of truth, offering a quite different portrayal of democracy than is currently given. Based on our empirical dissection of the...