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Who Needs Big Brother?

Post-truth, populism, and the crisis of public communication

The following is a summary of remarks delivered at the 2018 Jay Blumler Lecture, University of Leeds.

Western democracies have been in a constant state of crisis for decades now. It is hard to remember when there was no crisis. In their landmark book, The Crisis of Public Communication (1995), Blumler and Gurevitch outlined the elements of the crisis in the early 1990s. De-politicization, public cynicism, the simplification of public issues, the exclusion of citizens’ voices, and dominant news negativity were unmistakable symptoms of the crisis. Their book captured then-dominant worries in political communication scholarship about the quality of news and information and their negative impact of citizens’ competencies.

Today, a different set of concerns are prominent in scholarly literature and popular commentary. Old worries about citizens’ apathy and news quality persist, but a different set of problems are at the center of recent diagnoses, namely: misinformation, deception, “echo chamber” communication, and motivated/partisan reasoning.

The new crisis of public communication has been driven by unprecedented structural changes in the production, circulation, and consumption of information. Collapsed news gatekeeping, des-intermediation and remediation of news, and the fracturing of the communication commons have laid out new challenges: the spread of misinformation, the fragmentation of truth-telling in identity groups and communication clusters, and the selective avoidance and partisan trust of counter-attitudinal news and information.

The current conditions of public communication breed a different kind of pessimism about the prospects for public life. Whereas concerns about apathetic publics and a dysfunctional press reflected worries about the quality of democracy two decades ago, contemporary criticism is concerned about the prospects of liberal democracy altogether. In light of the global scale of the problem, the mood is much more somber, as suggested by books with ominous titles (such as How Democracies Die). It is hard to find even techno-optimism about the contributions of digital networks to citizenship like only a decade ago, when popular books envisioned a promising future of connected citizens. Even Silicon Valley, that bottomless spring of bubbly visions, seemingly toned down the happy talk about digital community in the aftermath of the debacle of the 2016 US election, relentless criticism, and prolonged public relations fiascos.

The new crisis is grounded in the collapse of the “regime of truth” that dominated the old order of public communication. The old order was articulated around distinctive national media systems, with a dominant and somewhat cohesive press atop the information pyramid, and clear divisions between media producers and consumers. Instead, today’s chaotic, unwieldy public communication lacks a defined regime of truth as a unified, hegemonic discursive formation. Accepted rules and established practices that define public knowledge and regulate discourse are anything but stable and uncontested. Journalism is no longer, if it ever was, a unified, sense-making, truth-telling institution.

The renewed popularity of the concept of “post-truth politics” captures these trends. The new crisis features fractured and relativist truths. The mainstreaming of factless convictions in the media and democratic politics demonstrates the destabilization of truth-telling as a common project guided by the public of reason, as envisioned by liberal theorists of the marketplace of ideas. The feasibility of such vision is uncertain, if not forever compromised.

Several symptoms are telling signs of these conditions of truth production. Deep pockets of misinformation in contemporary societies show the persistence of partial “truths” and knowledge that flatly negate scientific and technical facts. Historical and scientific denialism (for example, beliefs about climate change, the impact of immunization, the causes of infectious diseases) as well as misinformed public opinion about a range of policies and political positions (e.g. taxes, budget, immigration, public safety) show widespread false convictions ungrounded in facts.

These forms of misinformation are not necessarily open to corrections. Amid constant disinformation fueled by myriad institutions and groups, the strength of counterfactual beliefs and truths meshed with identity positions is undeniable. Likewise, low trust in the media and partisan-grounded belief in media credibility also suggest fractured relations between citizens and news. In high-choice media environments, citizens are able to select and curate information that fit preexisting convictions and reinforce partial, partisan, and ideological truths.

The politics of falsehood and propaganda have been decentralized. No longer does an all-dominant, Big Brother-like state control, manipulate, and shred truth to pieces. Instead, post-truth communication is anchored in dynamics and forces beyond the state. It is the outcome of the operation of simultaneous logics — commercial, political, and socio-cultural. Misinformation is fueled by an alliance of corporate money, legacy and online media unconstrained by the “professional” ideals of journalism; citizens curate their own information on social media, information that is filtered through personal influence and elite cues that tap into deep-seated, non-factual beliefs. In turn, misinformation becomes crystallized in identity politics with their own conception of truth.

Post-truth represents the absolute erasure of distinctions between truth and lies — the kind of situation that deeply troubled critics of 20th century of totalitarianism and managed public opinion, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodore Adorno. The contemporary relevance of their diagnosis and fears is a telling sign of troubled times today.

A scenario of social forces committed to continuing to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction is not only troubling. It also raises questions about the possibility of collective reasoning and evidence-based dialogue, exposure and listening to difference, and civility and solidarity as central components of public communication.

The global upsurge of populist politics suggests that the consolidation of post-truth communication is conducive to a kind of public communication vastly different from the model of the public sphere. The kind of post-truth politics represented by populism thrives in the current chaos of public communication. Populism’s communicative politics stands in opposition to the possibility of truth-telling as a collective effort to produce agreed-upon facts and reach consensus on the correspondence between assertions and reality.

Populism is diametrically opposed to central principles of democratic communication. Populism’s political ontology is opposed to bedrock principles of democratic communication. Populism does not have much patience or fondness for the essential elements of the democratic model of public communication: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to communication, fact-based and reasoned public debate, public criticism, informed citizenship, tolerance, and empathy. These ideas are premised on the notion that difference of opinion and inclusiveness of difference are constitutive of democracy, and therefore they need to be recognized and institutionalized in the communication commons.

Instead, populism conceives politics as pure agonism. It has no use for the communication commons or the liberal concept of the marketplace of ideas insofar as it conceives politics in terms of defining and combating enemies. Deliberation across difference is antithetical to the notion that politics is necessarily conflict. When truths are conceived as partial, attached to specific social and political interests rather as a common enterprise, public communication is not about truth-telling grounded on common premises about legitimate forms of knowledge and belief. Instead, populism argues, truth is necessarily divided, for it reflects the demands of “popular” interests against false, “elite” truth-telling.

This is why populism flatly rejects the foundational model of democratic communication and truth-telling. It is opposed to the argument that truth-telling is grounded in the work of autonomous, knowledge-producing institutions (e.g. science, journalism, the legal system) or the pragmatic version according to which truth-telling is based on community dialogue and intersubjective commitment to discursive norms. Populism’s vision of truth-telling as a divided, particularist endeavor grounded in social interests (e.g. class, nation, race) festers amid the collapse of the communication commons. As I argued this year in an issue of Communication Research and Practice, populism and the idea of truth-seeking as a common public project are antithetical.

These conditions should prompt media and communication scholars to interrogate the reality and the prospects of core values of democratic communication in the current context. How are they feasible amid communication chaos and populist insurgency? Or, for that matter, can any normative vision be dominant amid the fractured public commons?

Also, it is necessary to reconsider both the premises and the viability of the democratic model of the communication commons amid the contemporary politics of adversarialism, conflict, and contestation. Populism reminds us that politics is a contact game rather than only or generally about reasoned deliberation and listening and understanding. Some of the strongest voices and movements against populism and neoliberalism, such as the women’s movements, Black Lives Matter, and many other forms of progressive activism, are not particularly inspired by or concerned with consensus-seeking to hold power accountable, denounce abuses, promote rights, and foster social justice. At a time of loud calls for “resistance” in broad swaths of the world, democratic forms of public activism espouse a different set of actions – critique, identity reaffirmation, shaming, mockery, protest, satire. The calmer practices of deliberation, understanding, listening and tolerance vis-à-vis power, populism, and reactionary movements are not tactical priorities. Yes, the communicative ethics of solidarity and tolerance inspire engagement with publics excluded and stigmatized by populism and neoliberalism. Yet bracketing their passions and identities is not exactly prominent in rights-based movements engaged with the reactionary backlash.

In this context, I believe it is necessary to adjust research priorities and directions. I propose four questions for further discussion to continue revisiting the relationship between democracy and the media (Blumler and Coleman 2015).

  • How is the model of “communication commons” possible amid information chaos, high-choice media environment, and the networked public sphere?
  • Where are virtuous practices? Can they be replicated/scaled-up?
  • Why have attempts to reshape communicative politics following ideals of democratic communication failed or seen only limited success?
  • Should the model of informed, reasoned, dialogic communication be revisited and/or transcended?

Silvio Waisbord is Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, USA, and is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Communication.

References

Blumler, J. G. & M. Gurevitch (1995) The Crisis of Public Communication. London: Routledge.

Blumler J. G. & S. (2015) Democracy and the Media — Revisited, Javnost – the Public 22, 111-128.

Waisbord, S. (2018) The elective affinity between post-truth communication and populist politics, Communication Research and Practice, 1-18

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