Populism, Fake News, and the Flight From Democracy

Populism, Fake News, and the Flight From Democracy

Greg Nielsen (Concordia University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2543-2.ch011


Fake news and populist movements that appear to hold the fate of democracy hostage are urgent concerns around the world.  The flight from liberal democracy toward oligarchy has spread out from the unexpected results of the 2016 American presidential elections bringing in a wave of reactionary populism and the beginning of a left populist counter movement. The phenomenon of fake news is often explained in terms of opposition public relations strategies and geopolitics that shift audiences toward a regime of post-truth where emotion is said to triumphs over reason, computational propaganda over common sense, or sheer power over knowledge. In this chapter, the authors propose something different in order to theorize the imaginary audience(s) and conditions of reception for fake news treated as both a symptom (often of injury) and a cause (at times a danger to democracy). This leads them to evaluate the role it plays in defining what the fields of journalism, politics, and social science are becoming and what it means for democracy to come.
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“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American Ambassador who does not give them what they want.” (Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch)

A whisper in the president’s ear and a tweet later, U.S. troops withdraw from Syria, leaving allied Kurdish fighters exposed. A little while later in the U.S. Congress impeachment inquiry, Ukrainian Ambassador Yovanovitch is asking how it could come to the point where a key official, brokering a conflict in another war zone, could be so easily removed by such “shady interests.” Both of these stories are widely reported in the press, and yet, what is true and what is false about them is in dispute. In this chapter, we ask how populism and fake news are bypassing mainstream journalism, democratic politics, and critical social science, so that seemingly every truth claim can be parcelled, distorted or denied. How has it come to this, and where might we hope to go from here?

Politicians, journalists and social scientists play different though often overlapping roles in the production of the relation between truth and democracy. Agents in each of these fields are first- level observers of events and each has a different approach to their sources, constituents, and/or actors, as well as to the relations among fact, opinion, and truth. Agents in each field are being assaulted by right populist media and Republican politicians, and each are responding to the attacks in kind. Right populism and fake news, as we argue below, are putting democracy (rule by the people) in a flight toward oligarchy (rule by few), away from what de Tocqueville (1988/1850) called an American “love for the condition of equality” (pp. 504) toward a wildly libertarian version of freedom, haunted by the spectre of racism and sexism. We explore how this shift is in part due to the way strengths in these three fields may have given way to their weaknesses.


Fake News

The phenomenon of fake news is often explained in terms of the opposition’s public relations strategies and geopolitics that shift audiences toward an “epistemic (or truth) crisis.” Emotion is said to triumph over reason, computational propaganda over common sense, or sheer power over knowledge (Peters, et al. 2018). For some, “the crisis is more institutional than technological” (Benkler et al., 2018, pp. 20). For others, fake news is more importantly understood as a state-sponsored conspiracy (for example, from Russia or Ukraine, depending on one’s political affiliation; Howard et al, 2019) or technologically determined via patented algorithms and feedback loops rather than as a development in the political economy of the media ecosystem (Benkler et al., 2018). Social media has proven that there are multiple ways of taking advantage of long simmering and often highly volatile controversies over race, sexuality, class and other topics (ripe for dog whistles) that seem to always lie on the fringes of what can be said or even thought and what cannot be in polite society. Crossing the line between the two is culturally discouraged and to some extent illegal (libel laws), but it is also allowed under the umbrella of rights related to freedom of association and speech/communication. Destabilizing the category of truth in a democracy for geopolitical gain (Mueller, 2019), in our view, becomes possible because democracy as a regime of truth allows for a great variety of controversial discourse.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cultural Sociology: This approach argues that culture is a form of autonomous power and that every action has a horizon of meaning and affect that needs to be understood in itself. It requires an immanent reading of the actor’s performance and that is not explained in terms of some other economic, technological, or political structure. Once meaning and affect are grasped on their own terms, the power of culture can then be seen to act on structures. Fake news needs to be understood in terms of the meaning and effect of stories already being told by actors in their own contexts. Only then can the power of culture be discerned.

Populism: A political movement that can be defined as the rising up of “the people” against elites. Cutting across class and regional territories it builds forces that challenge existing regimes. It can be called right wing when coupled with conservative nationalism but can also engage a left-wing liberalism or socialism when in struggle against conservative forces. Both left and right tend to argue that the will of the people triumphs over any other measure.

Actor Network Theory: This is the study of the cultural traces that the material objects and human actors leave in the process of forming groups. Human and non-human actants are relative and none is more important than the other. Technological and human actants form a hybrid that can transform group formations or maintain them. The task of A.N.T. is to describe the process of group assemblages and not to advise them. New technologies like social media that propagate fake news are an example of the technology-human hybrid that serve as mediators. Print-journalism is caught flat footed in the shift to digital production and can be seen as an intermediator that helps maintain previous group formations.

Democracy: It means rule by the people. Direct democracy requires a deliberation by the people that lead to decisions for the common good. In more complex contexts like mass society a representative form is more practical. Elected representatives are sent to legislate in the name of their constituents. In liberal and republican democracy, the rule of law, the separation of legislative, judiciary, and executive power, along with a constitution that quarantines a basic set of rights for all, a market, and a civil society—are all said to guide the representative process.

Fake News: The term was first used by two reporters from Buzzfeed Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander following their discovery of a large number of intentional false reporting of pro-Trump stories in the 2016 U.S. election. The stories came mainly from alt right wing U.S. sources. The term fake news grew quickly as regular news stories picked up multiple examples of news intentionally meant to deceive readers/viewers. Its meaning was reversed by the President shortly after his election when he began to call all news and news organizations fake when it contradicted his agenda.

Alt Right: The term is short for the alternative right. It contradicts the former neo-conservative movement that emerged in the 1980’s as a strategy to gain electoral support from minorities while harboring traditional trickle-down economic policies like lower taxes for the wealthy and free trade. The alt right seeks a global movement that would reverse the effects of globalisation that left industrial labor behind in the shifts to the service and digital economies. The term alt right also describes groups associated with white nationalists, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, and/or climate change deniers as well as a number of charismatic intellectuals and media personalities who attack contemporary values of diversity.

Critical Sociology: Culture is a practice that is both a creative process and a structure of constraints. The goal of critical sociology is to understand and explain enduring structures of domination that constrain actors. It requires a first level reading of meaning from the actors but moves to a second level that explains the meaning in terms of larger forces that structure them. Fake news needs to be understood as a form of propaganda that developed over long periods of time in larger political and economic forces.

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