Focal Point

Disinformation and democracy

Fake news has become big news. Post-truth is the new paradigm. Respect for facticity is becoming, by all accounts, a commercial anachronism. And behind it all, the spectre of an illiberal international waging ‘info-war’ against western democracies.

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Fake news has become big news. Post-truth is the new paradigm. Respect for facticity is becoming, by all accounts, a commercial anachronism. And behind it all, the spectre of an illiberal international waging ‘info-war’ against western democracies.

Fake news and disinformation are real and they are dangerous. Their emergence lays bare the vulnerabilities of liberal democracy in globalized, digitally networked societies. And yet we need to be careful about the conclusions we draw.

Blaming a combination of digital technologies and the forces of illiberalism only goes so far. We also need to look at the demand side: how are the political and cultural forces that catalyse the spread of disinformation inherent to our own democratic systems?

The concept of post-truth also raises problems. It implies a time when politics was guided solely by rational argument, and when the media dutifully obeyed the imperative of facticity. Not only is this illusory in historical terms, it also expresses a concept of truth as that which possesses authority.

Postmodernism was a critique of this kind of positivism, whose connex with power it traced in scientific discourses. The controversy postmodernism triggered within the academe has today been revived in the context of political PR and ‘post-modern dictatorships’. Despite the occasional claims of ‘political technologists’, holding French Theory accountable represents a distortion of its own.

The Eurozine Focal Point ‘Disinformation and Democracy’ tries to open up new angles on this much-debated topic. It combines empirical focuses at national levels with theoretical discussions of the politics of post-truth; analyses of contemporary discourses and developments with intellectual and conceptual histories; investigations of the political fringes with reflections on democratic normality.

Of course, it is impossible to ignore Russia’s role in the spread of disinformation. Markus Wehner examines the implications of Russian ‘infowar’ while Daniel Leisegang looks at the far-right axis between Russia and western Europe and its use of social media.

Turning to political theory, Jean-Claude Monod positions a democratic politics between ‘epistemocracy’ and ‘post-truth’, while Joseph Uscinski explores the relationship between conspiracy theorizing and partisanship in the US.

Focusung on national contexts, Nilgün Tutal discusses the impotence of ‘truth’ in contemporary Turkey, while Orjela Stafasani explains why fake news is rampant in Kosovo’s struggling democracy.

And then the historians. Writing on concepts of truth in the twentieth century, Marci Shore compares western intellectuals’ response to the disappointment of real-existing communism with that of eastern European dissidents. Valentin Groebner, meanwhile, recalls debates on written communications in pre-modernity and the emergence of mass media in the late eighteenth century to argue that the history of news is the history of the confusion between the real and the fake.

This focal point is the result of an editorial collaboration within the Eurozine network. The majority of the articles have been commissioned – and in some cases written – by editors of Eurozine partner journals and originally published in languages other than English. All texts are published in English in Eurozine.

In the coming weeks: focuses on Bulgaria and the Baltics; Russia and the western far-right; and Facebook and the crisis of the elites.

Simon Garnett, Editor