The Government of Poverty

Politics, Government and Livelihoods in Late-Capitalist Agrarian Landscapes

Month: November 2017

Beyond fact-checking: the media, populism and post-truth politics

Rapporteur’s notes to World Forum for Democracy:  closing session

10 November 2017

The WFD in session. Photo courtesy of Coucil of Europe / Cathérine Monfils

Good morning, Director-General, colleagues and friends.  Thank you for the opportunity to share my impressions and thoughts as rapporteur at this meeting over the last few days.

We all know that the media are essential to the functioning of democracy: ensuring that citizens are well informed and making it possible to hold elected representatives and officials to account.

Over the last few days many voices at this meeting have warned us that all is not well.

One of the clearest signs of trouble we have discussed has been the rising tide of what has been called ‘fake news’.  This is about much more than the spreading of disinformation or lies, even if on an industrial scale by troll-factories or automated ‘bots’.  Rather, on many occasions in the past years it has seemed as if the very coin of truth or journalistic facticity is becoming devalued, so that otherwise powerful media organizations and organised political parties seem unable to gain traction or to push back effectively against untruths & half truths, unable to focus public attention away from distractions to the realities that matter.

Another even more disturbing sign is that of late it seems that we can no longer rely on any common ground of shared assumptions or undisputed facts that would allow us to adjudicate disagreements.  Instead, rival political groupings inhabit parallel universes, “echo chambers” where they see or hear nothing except that which confirms their own views.  And the national public media institutions that are supposed to build social cohesion and provide the frame for these discussions are beleaguered or enlisted on one side.

Not surprisingly therefore, much of the discussion here at the WFD has focused on what is to be done. In the labs that were held yesterday, delegates proposed and discussed a wide range of imaginative and resourceful plans.  We heard about apps and browser extensions that deconstruct the filters that social media impose on us, and that encourage people to ‘read outside their bubble’. We heard about collaborative initiatives such as Africa Check, Crosscheck and EuCheck where media institutions and journalists work together to respond in real time to combat false rumours. We saw presentations by courageous groups of critical and investigative journalists such as the Union of Informed Citizens in Armenia, or The Insider in Russia pushing back to expose the lies of politicians, often at risk of their careers or lives.

These are all creative and important initiatives.  Yet I am concerned that they don’t go far enough. Particularly not when the key issue is to do something about the challenge of authoritarian populism.

We have heard at this conference that the disturbing reality is that there  are more and more places in the world and sectors of society where fact checking simply has no impact,  because many people simply don’t care any more. Yesterday, Matjas Gruden asked an arresting question. How do we make sense of the fact that we are in a world where there are significant numbers of people who really believe – and who want to  believe!that Hilary Clinton was running a Satanic paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington? This is merely the most extreme version of a whole genre of myths and conspiracy theories circulating in society that seem immune to counterfactual challenge.  In Europe and the US, those conspiracy theories involve the Illuminati, the Rothshilds, the CIA.  In my own country they are likely to invoke Anton Rupert, George Soros, and ‘white monopoly capital’.  In all cases, they involve powerful and compelling stories that not only purport to explain the world around us, but that also systematically ‘poison the well’ against competing versions of the truth: delegitimising or questioning the trustworthiness of our central media institutions, the veracity of science, the authority of experts, and the legitimacy of universities.

The reason for this is not that people are naïve or poorly educated.  Rather, it appears that these kinds of narratives find adherents because they make some kind of emotional and political sense.

Here, I’d like to remind you of an important aspect of authoritarian populism.  It is about much more than centralising authoritarian power  in the name of ‘the people’.  Rather, populism is a way of making sense of the world.  Populist discourse stitches together a wide range of popular grievances into a coherent story that confers a powerful sense of social belonging; a sense of an ‘us’ that is beleaguered and marginalised.  Once it has been established, that embattled sense of belonging becomes the lens through which everything is viewed. In the first panel discussion yesterday, a truly alarming input was provided by Prof Anna Krasteva of the New Bulgarian University.  She argued that in some parts of the world, we are seeing the rejection of what I like to call modern liberal technopolitics – the politics of the representation and adjudication of competing material interests, usually by party structures and within parliaments. It its place she described the rise of a new kind of symbolic politics, a politics of the body, a politics of aestheticised and valourised belonging; a kind of nihilistic hyper-political anti-politics that abandons discussion of actual policies in favour of  the enactment of authenticity.  This is a phenomenon not addressed by the contestation or checking of facts, because within the rules of this new game, facts are irrelevant.  In fact, by your ceaseless checking of facts, by your outrage at the lies of Zuma or Duterte or Erdogan or Trump you are merely indicating your membership of the liberal elite.

In many of the discussions yesterday, my sense was that many delegates preferred not to engage with this prospect.  Let us leave the extremes to the extremists, they said; let’s try to address and convert those who are closer to the centre.

Now certainly we need to have rational political debate where it still can be had. We need to make our media institutions strong so that they can withstand and challenge this trance of belonging.

But I think we ignore at our peril the disaffected and alienated voices who are rejecting the key connective institutions in our societies. We need to find ways of getting people to care about the truth – and about the views of others –  again.

Here, it is important that we go beyond checking facts to challenging myths.  The simple stories of belonging created by populism need to compete with other, more inclusive ways of thinking about identity and about who ‘we’ are.

We also need to understand that people are not only passive consumers of news.  We need for our media and media platforms to become places where people can have honest conversations, where they can take the risk of trying to hear each other.

But most importantly, we need to ensure that politics is not just an empty charade.  The writer and art critic John Berger once said that our present-day politicians are like people who sit chatting away on the front step of their house , while thieves walk in and out of the front door, carrying large bags of money. It’s important to remember that there are good reasons for the groundswell of popular disaffection. We are living in a time in which the eight richest men on the planet own as much as the bottom three billion.

We need to remember that it is not  the disaffected masses that are out of control.  It is the runaway train of financial capital and powerful corporations who treat the populations of the world, not as citizens, not as political actors, but as nodes in a revenue stream.

The real challenge of politics today is to address the causes of the economic inequality at the root of the wave of populist disaffection. That is the crisis that our news media and our truth telling has to focus on.


7 November 2017 – on the eve of the WFD


Late in the evening in Strasbourg, where I’ve arrived to spend three days working as a rapporteur for the November meeting of the World Forum for Democracy that is happening in the Palace de L’Europe over the next three days.

I still find myself somewhat surprised to be here.  A few months ago I took it upon myself to write a small blog piece, thinking aloud about the similarities and commonalities between the politics of Trump and Brexit on the one hand, and President Zuma on the other.  It was not a piece about which I had really high hopes; more an attempt at thinking aloud, in order to puzzle out what it is that I find novel (and scary) about the political conjuncture in the world I live in. On a whim, I sent it to OpenDemocracy. To my gratification, it was published, and to my surprise this was followed a few days later by an invitation from OpenDemocracy’s editor in chief, Rosemary Bechler, to join her as a rapporteur at the WFD event.   It’s not really my beat – my focus has been on development and poverty for the last twenty years; but I accepted with alacrity, partly because it is a wonderful opportunity to have a ringside seat at a key political forum on democracy as a critical time in world history.  And while I am a rural sociologist by choice, I have a healthy interest in politics and political theory, and the issues at the heart of this year’s WFD meeting  (the theme is Is Populism a Problem?speak directly to  critical questions about the nature of modern government and politics in which  I am very interested.

I’m expecting an interesting few days.   I can’t say for sure yet – I am a complete outsider here – but here are my first impressions (I am noting them here partly because it will be interesting for me to see how my hunches pan out).

Firstly,  despite the big question mark in the title, the Council of Europe, the organisation that hosts the WFD, clearly does think that populism is a problem.   In my blog piece, I theorised that one of the things happening in the world today is that a fairly stable form of institutionalised political management  – let’s call it neoliberal technopolitics – is suddenly much more open to challenge.  Some of the challenges are from the ‘left’, and may have potential to empower the poor and the marginalised and to challenge the worst excesses of modern financial capitalism. But some of the most prominent phenomena – Trump, Brexit, and our own president Zuma among them, seem to embody a new kind of cynical, even nihilist political theatre, acting in cahoots with predatory corporate interests and chauvinist or racist forces to pursue anti-democratic politics.   It is clear that the Council of Europe is deeply worried by these developments.  While they  acknowledge the breakdown of trust between ordinary people and political institutions, and while there is some language about the positive potential of a more engaged citizenry, it is pretty clear from the programme notes that the dominant assessment on the part of the conference organisers is that the rise of populism poses an existential threat to the institutions of democracy (and particularly liberal democracy).  (I must say I pretty much tend to agree.)

Secondly, my sense is that the dominant agenda informing many of the proposals and sessions to be debated are essentially conservative. My take is that the Council of Europe and the organizers of the conference would dearly like to get the genie back into the bottle.   While there is a lot of emphasis in the programme notes about the need to make institutions more responsive and more participatory,  the agenda seems to me to be essentially a techno-political one: to take the wild and rambunctious energies released by populism and to tame them, to bring them back into the fold of rational, evidence-based policy and legal deliberation.

Thirdly, it seems to me that the methods being proposed to do this are unlikely to succeed. Much of the discussion at the WFD will take place in ‘Labs’ where people will debate and propose various kinds of institutional or technical innovation that can make democracy work better.  This year, there is a lot of emphasis on all manner of innovations into making democracy more participatory, and also a whole raft of proposals on how to deal with fake news through some kind of institutionalised fact checking system. My take on the proposals I have seen is that they have limited chance of having traction.  No doubt participation is an essential part of a ‘healthy political system’.  But politics is about much more than participating.  Crucially, it is about the processes of adjudication by which difficult choices are made about conflicting demands.  Those problems can’t be solved by simply making them more participatory.

And the notion that fact-checking will do anything at all to contain the proliferation of powerful new ‘othering’ narratives in society is in my view just delusional.  The core of populism is not the actual content of one claim or another; it is the way in which a wide diversity of social demands are stitched together in narratives that create new and emotionally powerful senses of social belonging.  All the fact checking and all the citizen participation in the world is not going to hold back the neofascist and racist forces now making headway in society.  The only thing in the world that will stop them is counter organization – narratives that create alternative ways of thinking about belonging.  And this will have to be linked to political programmes that do something about the substantively unfair and unequal distribution of resources and opportunities in our world.

Fourthly, after spending a couple of hours in the hotel bar downstairs, eating the Hotel Mercur’s uninspiring hotel food and comparing notes with Rosemary Bechler and her colleagues from OpenDemocracy, I can report that: my fellow rapporteurs are a sharp and canny bunch.    I am honoured to be part of their team and I am looking forward to what the next few days will reveal.