GERMANY-Munich – The Oxford dictionaries’ decision to nominate ‘post-truth’ as word of the year 2016 demonstrates the profound changes in the role of facts and truth in political communication. The dictionary defines the word as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. The nomination appears to follow the perception that parts of the political landscape within and outside of the EU changed the way they address potential adherents.
The rise of populist movements and parties in most parts of Europe, the Brexit campaign as well as the on-going propaganda efforts by Russia, the Daesh and others have demonstrated that voices fundamentally critical towards Europe reach and seem to convince an increasing number of European citizens. The opinion climate in EU member states appears to be increasingly polarized as demonstrated in the recent Austrian presidential elections. Whereas statements by those numerous groups differ vastly in their inscribed ideology, they appear to share a rather laid-back handling of truth and apparent facts.
Being a social scientist, I was interested in understanding the logics behind these new forms of political messaging. Thus, I wanted to get insights into why these statements are convincing and appealing to some and inherently ridiculous and contradictory to others. Following the above mentioned definition, the initial hypothesis was that statements by those groups predominantly contain emotional appeals and express opinions that are not backed by any form of evidence. But does this intuitive assumption withstand an empirical analysis?
As part of the international EU FP 7 funded research project INFOCORE I analyzed together with a team at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich the role of strategic communication in six violent conflicts: Syria, Israel/Palestine, Macedonia, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi.
One of the tasks our team dealt with was to determine the normative quality of communication by NGOs, political and other strategic communicators. Past research had demonstrated that a high level of evidence will increase a source’s perceived credibility and thus lead to increasing impact on the news and public opinion. To investigate this normative quality, we looked at evidence from two different perspectives: Do messages highlight where information stems from – the source of evidence so to speak? And do messages characterize the certainty or uncertainty of provided information/statements? For this study, we relied on data from a computer-assisted content analysis of 18,888 press releases, interviews and other texts from the website of a variety of political parties and entities. Our initial expectation was that communicators like the European Union or governments of EU member states should provide the highest share of texts containing evidence, whereas communicators that distribute propaganda and/or populist messages lack evidential support in their claims. The results, however, showed something very different.
The key finding is that groups using post-truth communication strategies apply a significantly higher overall level of evidence. To further illustrate this, one can take a look at Daesh’s communication: Whereas in average 59% of political communication texts on Syria contained references to sources, Daesh did so in 74%. Populist parties – that of course are quite different from Daesh in their nature and “mission” – appeared to follow the same strategy. The Kosovar Vetëvendosje party, for example, emphasized the certainty of provided information in 87% of their texts as compared to an average of 66% for all texts on the post-conflict situation in Kosovo. Consequently, based on established research the natural conclusion would be that these groups use a normatively advanced form of communication and are, thus, more convincing than established political parties. The twist, however, is that the mentioned sources differ in their credibility and quality with populist and propagandistic actors more often referring to themselves and “general wisdom” as sources of evidences and less often using established and credible sources. The study thereby indicates the eroding relevance of source credibility.
There are some trends connected to digital communication that might play a role in this. First of all, the amount of people that openly express their distrust in the traditional media and other elites appears to have increased of lately. Social media platforms are filled to the brim with accusations of political impact on media outlets and the so-called “Lügenpresse”. Simultaneously, non-traditional and non-professional news pages like yournewswire.com or news-front.info spread news that is not based on sufficient fact checking or just plain and simply fake. Finally, due to the algorithmic structure of social media sites people only see messages that reflect their own preferences narrowing the potential for deliberation and restricting the impact of fact checking.
So what can we do? I think there are three different stakeholders that play a crucial role in strengthening the importance of facts and preventing anti-European sentiments. First, professional journalists need to remain our societies’ critical observers. There is a need for investigative journalism that is critical not only towards populists and those spreading anti-EU propaganda, but also towards the political establishment as well as economic and political elites.
A critical and independent press still is crucial to Western democratic societies, but it also needs the financial backbone to be able to function. Social scientists need to closely monitor trends in political communication and critically evaluate what these developments mean for society and where they might lead to. Politicians, finally, need to intensify their dialogue with the irritated electorate. They need to explain why European values and ideals are worth fighting for. The EU report on “strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties” passed in October 2016, is a step in the right direction here. It mentions measures like the close monitoring of propaganda efforts, the support of media freedom in EU-neighboring countries or awareness campaigns directed towards EU citizens. Understanding the logics behind post-truth is a first step towards countering it and I am positive that the road we started within INFOCORE might assist the EU in their efforts and might thereby help to advocate for European values.