When the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, their decision marked much more than the first time in the history of European integration that an entire member state chose to leave the union. Due to the extent of the mis– and disinformation that had been disseminated in the wake of the Leave campaign (see Marshall & Drieschova, 2018; Orlando, 2022), the Brexit referendum was interpreted not only as the possible beginning of the disintegration of the European project (see Leruth et al., 2019; Rosamond, 2016; Vollaard, 2018), but moreover, as a sign of the emergence of what would come to be referred to as ‘post-truth politics’ (Farkas & Schou, 2020; Lo Schiavo, 2019; McIntyre, 2018). The impression of the dawn of a new era of ‘postfactual politics’ (MacMullen, 2020), alternatively referred to also as ‘information disorder’ (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017) and/or ‘truth decay’ (Kavanagh & Rich, 2018), was reinforced shortly afterwards in the wake of Donald Trump’s successful bid to become the President of the United States. On the surface, to a significant extent this impression clearly resulted from the apparent indifference to the facts that Donald Trump showed throughout his campaign, but perhaps more strikingly by a corresponding indifference on the part of his supporters and, famously, also by references to alternative facts regarding the crowd size at the inauguration ceremony (cf. Monsees, 2021; Vogelmann, 2018). But notably, the Brexit referendum process and the 2016 US Presidential elections also gained notoriety in the context of post-truth politics because of the scope of disinformation spread by external actors for manipulative purposes, oftentimes referred to as ‘Russian meddling’ (Bennett & Livingston, 2018; Llewellyn et al., 2019).
From the spring of 2020 onwards, the poor handling of the COVID pandemic in countries led by right-wing populist governments caused some to predict—somewhat optimistically—the imminent demise of populism. And while there may have been some hope that this would result also in a turn away from post-truth politics, recent events have suggested otherwise. Although the early phases of the pandemic underlined a renewed interest in reliable factual information and a demand for scientific expertise, the kinds of conspiracy narratives underlying much of the opposition towards social distancing measures, the obligatory use of masks and, subsequently, also vaccination campaigns can be understood as a clear reminder that the post-truth era may very well be here to stay. At the time of writing, the most striking case in point is, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, most of all, the atrocious war crimes committed under the guise of a ‘special military operation’ that is allegedly carried out for the sake of ‘de-Nazifying’ the country.
It is against this backdrop that this volume sets out to study the impact of post-truth politics on Europe. Here, Europe is understood in a fairly wide sense and is not limited to the European Union, although our interest is in large part connected to the legitimation and delegitimation of European integration. In this introduction, a few words are in order on what the contributions that make up this volume have in common when they address the issue of post-truth politics. Admittedly, the term post-truth politics can be perceived as fairly broad and potentially also somewhat misleading. It is broad in the sense that it is used as an umbrella term that covers a whole range of interlinked phenomena that are often conflated and collectively constitute the broader phenomenon of post-truth politics. In order to provide a basis for a more nuanced understanding of post-truth politics, it is evidently necessary to disentangle such phenomena, at least for analytical purposes. The concept of post-truth politics is furthermore somewhat misleading in that it suggests that the relevance of the truth in politics may be fading. This claim is certainly plausible with regard to the way in which some of the clearest cases of post-truth populists—most notably Donald Trump—tend to ‘play fast and loose with the truth’. The fact that there are regularly no consequences when political figures are found not to have spoken the truth may very well indicate that the truth is losing its ‘symbolic authority’ (Newman, 2019). However, such assertions also draw attention to the immensely contested nature of the truth. Claims to the truth—and indeed also allegations of lies and deceit—are also strikingly frequent among the supporters of post-truth populists, and both post-truth populists and their supporters are quick to assert that their freedom of thought and expression is curtailed by an overly politically correct political culture. Similarly, distrust in journalism is constituted to a significant extent by the idea—which is promoted and at the same time exploited by post-truth populists—that mainstream media are part of a corrupt liberal elite that presents only a highly stylised account of the truth and thus fails to tell the people the whole truth. With this in mind, it may indeed be more adequate, as some authors have done, to speak of postfactual politics to suggest that it is indeed the factual basis of truth claims that is becoming increasingly contentious, not the idea of the truth itself (cf. MacMullen, 2020).
We can develop what we mean by post-truth politics in relation to the considerable body of academic literature on post-truth politics that has emerged since the adjective ‘post-truth’ earned the title of ‘word of the year’ in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016. Thanks to this growing literature, significantly more is known today about the kinds of phenomena that constitute post-truth (or postfactual) politics, information disorder, or truth decay than when work on this volume began. In particular, this literature has moved beyond initial questions regarding the novelty of the phenomenon, specifically, whether politics has not always been post-truth, at least to some extent, and has started to address and unpack the multifaceted character of the phenomenon. One overarching theme in this literature, that also drives several of the Chapters in this volume, is evidently the question of whether these various phenomena collectively amount to any profound transformation of political culture. That is to say, whether the substitution of fact by other considerations (e.g. emotion) and the apparent willingness to accept lies and deceit on the part of leading political figures indicates the coming of an era in which the truth has indeed lost its symbolic authority. If this is the case, then we clearly need to ask questions about what has brought this about and study empirically how it affects European politics.
A changing information environment is obviously one of these elements of post-truth politics. The structural transformation of the public sphere brought about by developments in information technology and, specifically, the rise of social media (Lo Schiavo, 2019, p. 219)—accompanied by a decline of (trust in) quality journalism—has contributed to what authors such as Peter Dahlgren have referred to as an ‘epistemic crisis of democracy’ (cf. Bennett & Livingston, 2018; Dahlgren, 2018; Sunstein, 2017). The rise of social media and the parallel decline of quality journalism is consequently often highlighted as one of the contributing factors in the emergence of a post-truth style of communication—and by extension for the rise of post-truth politics (Waisbord, 2018). This draws attention to an aspect that the Chapters in this volume focus on, namely the idea that post-truth politics has to be analysed by taking into account two central dimensions, specifically what is referred to in this volume as the actor and the arena dimension of post-truth politics. Post-truth politics, as it is understood in this volume, is characterised by a specific post-truth mode of communication, where a certain type of populist actor uses the infrastructure provided by social and other digital media to infuse the public sphere with mis- and disinformation.Footnote 1
Aim of the Book
The aim of this book is to contribute to the literature on post-truth politics by providing theoretical reflections on post-truth politics as well as empirical evidence that highlights the intimate link and dynamic interplay between the actor and arena dimensions of post-truth politics. The title and subtitle of this book underline this dynamic interplay: the book analyses the impact of post-truth politics on Europe by highlighting the role of a specific type of actor (i.e. populist politicians) who utilise a specific kind of arena (i.e. social and other digital media) for the dissemination of mis- and disinformation in the public sphere—with all the consequences that this entails for the quality of public deliberation and democracy more broadly. The overarching narrative of the book is therefore that post-truth politics in Europe presents itself as the interplay of a specific post-truth mode of communication in the public sphere, where populist politicians play the key role with regard to the actor dimension, while social and other digital media play the key role with regard to the arena dimension. Against this backdrop, the book addresses the following themes and research questions:
If post-truth politics constitutes a transformation of political culture, then what are the defining features of this emerging political culture?
If post-truth politics is a symptom of a deeper crisis of political communication, the public sphere, or democracy more broadly, then what has brought this crisis about? What is this deeper crisis that finds expression in the emergence of a specific kind of populism that is articulated in a specific post-truth mode of communication?
What can our empirical case studies tell us about this hypothesised link between the actor and the arena dimensions of post-truth politics?
Organisation of the Book
The volume is divided into three sections and arranged in such a way as to reflect the Chapters’ differing emphases on theoretical and empirical aspects of post-truth politics in Europe. The three Chapters in Section One focus on the relationship between post-truth politics, democracy, and the public sphere from a predominantly theoretical perspective. In Chapter 2, Saul Newman sets the tone for the book from a theoretical point of view and explores the epistemic and political challenge of post-truth discourse to the idea of the liberal democratic public sphere in times of right-wing populism and COVID-19. For Newman, this challenge provides a welcome opportunity to rethink the notion of the public sphere, pointing to the ways in which emancipatory social movements disrupt the institutions of the liberal democratic state. In this context, the Chapter examines the controversy around the relationship between post-truth and ‘postmodernism’, arguing that poststructuralist theory may indeed serve as an antidote to post-truth. John Erik Fossum’s Chapter 3 dovetails with this argument and contemplates the causes of the current era of post-truth politics. By exploring the context in which fake news, disinformation, and manipulation occur, Fossum proposes that the kind of post-truth politics that populist actors engage in should be seen primarily as a bellwether for the health of democracies. The emergence of post-truth populist actors can be attributed to changing politics-policy configurations, as for instance in the case of the European Economic Area agreement. Fossum supports this argument by developing a two-dimensional ‘constitutional democracy pathology scale’ that focuses on the existence of pathological features such as post-truth politics, but also proposes potential corrective mechanisms. In Chapter 4, Asimina Michailidou, Hans-Jörg Trenz, and Elisabeth Eike address the issue of distrust in journalism in Europe and discuss counterstrategies for the (re-)building of trust from a top-down European Union (EU) policy perspective. The Chapter assesses the EU’s response to the authoritarian and fake news challenge and discusses the limits of a voluntary (self-) regulatory approach in light of public sphere standards.
The Chapters in Section Two move onto questions connected to post-truth populism and the disintegration of Europe. In Chapter 5, Maximilian Conrad draws on Silvio Waisbord’s notion of an ‘elective affinity’ between populism and post-truth politics to discuss populist challenges to public-service media and critical journalism more broadly. Conrad argues that ‘fake news’ allegations and similar efforts to denounce critical journalists need to be understood as part of a post-truth populist strategy to undermine the legitimacy of mainstream media so as to justify demands for a defunding of public-service media. Based on an analysis of the Alternative for Germany’s ‘Grundfunk’ initiative to radically reduce the funding system for German public-service media, Conrad argues that such efforts may only be a stepping stone into a fully fledged post-truth world where citizens’ access to reliable information would be severely curtailed. Vittorio Orlando’s Chapter 6 looks at the impact of post-truth politics on the Brexit process. Specifically, the Chapter analyses the role that misinformation disseminated by the Leave campaign played in the debate leading up to the Brexit referendum and discusses the significance of these findings in the broader context of European disintegration. In Chapter 7, Giulia Evolvi highlights the connection between populism and post-truth politics by presenting an empirical analysis of the tweets of the Italian far-right politician Matteo Salvini. The Chapter underlines the importance of social media as an arena for post-truth communication, emphasising both the connection between religion and disinformation, and the relevance of antagonistic politics and emotional narratives within the public sphere.
The theme of migration takes centre-stage in the contributions of Section Three, which addresses the significance of post-truth politics in the mediatisation and politicisation of migration. In Chapter 8, Verena Brändle discusses the role of governments’ information campaigns for irregular migrants within the current post-truth context. The Chapter argues that with such campaigns, governments claim authority over the ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ of irregular migration. While the campaign messages are presented as reliable information, information from other actors is construed as misinformation. Chapter 9 contains Anna Björk’s discussion on the role of facts and narratives in ongoing efforts—at the global as well as at the European level—to tackle migration as a political issue through the recognition of the importance of framing, facts, accurate information, data, and communication tools. The Chapter’s argument is illustrated by reference to recent initiatives such as the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the UN Global Compact for Safe and Orderly Migration. Within Chapter 10, Sanna Malinen, Aki Koivula, Arttu Saarinen, and Teo Keipi use Finland as an empirical case to analyse the role of counter media sites in the rise of the anti-immigration movement. With the help of a nationally representative survey, they point to the connection between people’s social media-related concerns and the extent to which such concerns can be explained by party-political preferences, media trust and immigration attitudes. In the final Chapter of this section, Gwen Bauvois and Niko Pyrhönen analyse the remediation of the mainstream news cycle on the ‘refugee crisis’ to the social media audiences of two Finnish anti-immigration groups, namely ‘Close the Borders!’ and ‘Finland First’. By showing the post-truth tropes that these groups employ in order to subvert information originally sourced to epistemic authorities, the Chapter demonstrates that by harnessing careful and context-sensitive remediation practices, the radical right is effectively able to hijack the news cycle with the alleged support from ‘unlikely allies’ among epistemic authorities. The volume ends with concluding reflections by Guðmundur Hálfdánarsson and Maximilian Conrad.
In a recent discussion on populism as the discursive construction of discontent, Vivien Schmidt has drawn a similar distinction between the ‘messenger’ and the ‘medium’, which broadly corresponds to our distinction between actors and arenas. Drawing on her discursive institutionalist framework, Schmidt furthermore lists the ‘message’ itself as well as the ‘milieu’ in which this discursive construction takes place as the four features of populism (Schmidt, 2022).
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Conrad, M., Hálfdanarson, G. (2023). Introduction: Europe in the Age of Post-Truth Politics. In: Conrad, M., Hálfdanarson, G., Michailidou, A., Galpin, C., Pyrhönen, N. (eds) Europe in the Age of Post-Truth Politics. Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-13694-8_1
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