‘Post-truth politics’ does not require better truths, it requires better arguments

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU has had to react to misinformation being spread by Russia. [Shutterstock]

With CETA signed, protest groups in Wallonia and beyond will surely cry foul at the way the region was coerced into standing down. What is surprising, however, is that they are not the only ones who feel cheated, writes Reinout van der Veer.

Reinout van der Veer is an MSc. and PhD candidate in Political Science at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

EU politicians backing CETA are publicly fretting the way in which those opposing CETA disregard the ‘facts and evidence’ on the benefits of the landmark trade agreement between the EU and Canada.

After signing the agreement, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, said “post-factual reality and post-truth politics pose a great challenge on both sides of the Atlantic”. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was ‘vexed’ over accusations that CETA would lower labour standards, amongst other issues.

Indeed, Western politics seems confronted with an ever-increasing presence of post-truth politics. Publics appear increasingly susceptible to the provision of misinformation, appeals to ‘irrational’ emotions and suggestions at conspiracy theories by politicians from political parties at the fringes.

Donald Trump’s US election campaign is a notable example of post-truth politicians, but EU examples include Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), Farage and Johnson and their Brexit campaign and anti-immigration politicians like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

But perhaps the most competent post-truth politician is found on the EU’s eastern border. The Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda campaigns have been so successful that last year the EU’s foreign service established a taskforce with the specific job of ‘correcting’ and ‘fact-checking’ Russian-spread misinformation and myths.

The rise of post-truth politics is made possible by the growing disillusionment of Western citizens with their political institutions, politicians and policy makers and-perhaps-even with each other.

New media such as Facebook, Reddit and Twitter are also enabling post-truth politics, as they allow anyone to publish stories and information but lack the quality controls employed by traditional media.

The information overload present on these new media (and the algorithms underlying them) facilitate the creation of ‘echo chambers’, whereby one’s social media feed becomes dominated by news from a few complementary perspectives. A recent study by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. shed light on the astonishing fragmentation of political content on social media feeds and the resulting online segregation of Republican and Democrat voters.

Traditional media do not necessarily score better, as a 2015 study of the Brexit campaign found that even these media can drown out fact and reason. According to its author, Nicholas Startin, the poor EU coverage by the UK tabloid press “has led to a situation where its citizens, in the context of an ‘in-out’ referendum, are unable to ‘weigh up’ the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of EU membership in a rational and informed fashion.”

But we should not forget that the ‘truth’ in politics has always been political. Policies and political decisions can be informed by ‘facts’, but statistics can vary by their underlying operational measurements and formulas and in many cases multiple conflicting truths are present in political debates at the same time.

Moreover and by definition, the costs and benefits regarding political and policy decisions lie in the future and do not become visible until decisions and policies are implemented. As such, even the best scientific predictions of these costs and benefits may prove unrealistic.

Which truth comes out on top, then, is more dependent on the political priming, cueing and framing of evidence rather than its validity.

Post-truth politics create a situation where Brexiteers like Michael Gove can credibly state that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. But to restore people’s faith in these experts, we do not require better evidence.

Instead, we need better arguments. This proposition was put forward by Professor Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review that paved the way for the COP21 in Paris, in a public lecture on Growth and Sustainability at the London School of Economics on Thursday the 27 of October.

In response to a question on how to respond to post-truth politics in climate change, Stern made a reference to the Pope, who “is a remarkable communicator. He said: ‘God always forgives, people sometimes forgive, nature never forgives. If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us’”.

While not religious himself, Stern applauds such argumentation because “it is basically right and is put in a very persuasive and crisp way where people understand the point. We [academics] sometimes take half an hour to clear our throat.”

It is up to the EU’s politicians and policy makers to improve their communication strategies, and quickly. All the facts and evidence supporting their claims are worthless if they do not know how to capture public attention and credibly convey their message.

If they don’t, future landmark EU projects like CETA and TTIP will only face more public contestation.

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