This chapter presents the book’s concluding reflections and argues that the contributors to this volume are in general agreement on the detrimental effects of that post-truth politics can have on European democracies, but that this does not necessarily mean that democracy is doomed. The challenges posed by the post-truth era have also triggered resistance among various governmental agencies and international organisations. Recent experience from COVID-19 shows that on the one hand a small group of populist activists have been fairly successful in stoking some people’s fears of vaccines and their opposition to various mitigation measures, casting doubt on the scientific information provided by health experts. On the other hand, some commentators have predicted that the pandemic spells the end of the post-truth era. As the conditions for post-truth politics remain, it would be premature to declare the demise of post-truth politics any time soon. At the same time, as support for populist political parties has stagnated or even declined in recent European elections, there is hope that the tide has been stemmed at least for the time being.
In announcing their choice of the term ‘post-truth’ as the English ‘word of the year’ in 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries defined it on its webpage as “an adjective […] ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’”. The dictionary underscored that the term was not invented in 2016, as it seems to have been coined in the early 1990s, but its use spiked dramatically in 2016, especially in the summer and autumn during the campaigns for the Brexit referendum in June and the US presidential elections in November. This catapulted the word from the periphery of political commentary to its centre, signifying what seemed to be a clear paradigm shift in European and American political discourses. In this context, the prefix ‘post’ has a specific meaning, the Oxford Dictionaries’ webpage pointed out, as it refers not to a move in time from a specific situation or an event, unlike terms such as ‘post-war’ and ‘post-match’. Rather, the reference is to “a time in which the specified concept [truth] has become unimportant or irrelevant” (Oxford Language, 2016).
Lies and deceit are, of course, nothing new in democratic politics, but changing attitudes to ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ in political discourses appear to characterise the era we are living in. Post-truth, Saul Newman writes in his contribution to this book, “seems to evoke a new condition in which the line between truth and falsehood becomes blurred and indistinct and where truth itself has lost its symbolic value”. He sees this as “a new political and epistemological paradigm characterised by ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, conspiracy theories and the deliberate propagation of misinformation”, or a political situation where truth has become “mere opinion”, drowned “out in a cacophony of competing perspectives and narratives” (Newman, 2022, pp. 13–14).Footnote 1 This does not mean that truth, as an ideal, has been totally discarded in politics, but rather that there are no longer any universally accepted arbiters who can distinguish between what is regarded true or false or, to quote Newman again, who can establish “a certain shared consensus around basic facts” (ibid., p. 15). When two contradictory truth-claims are presented in post-truth politics, it is up to the consumer of the information to decide which they choose to believe.
As suggested in the introduction to this volume, this change can be interpreted as a symptom of a deeper crisis in political communication where, on the one hand, a digital revolution has radically transformed the arena of public political debate and, on the other, certain political actors have used the new communication channels to spread dubious information to further their agenda. In the beginning, new digital platforms, social media in particular, were greeted as potential tools of democratising authoritarian societies, because they opened countless possibilities for individuals to express their opinions, to gather information, and to organise political action, without government interference or suppression. Thus, the use of social media during the Arab Spring has often been taken as an example of how the new communication technologies served as instruments in disrupting oppressive power, as they enabled opposition activists to organise their actions and to mobilise popular protest against their governments (Castells, 2015; Ghannam, 2011). Increasingly, however, observers regard social media as an obstacle to, rather than a facilitator of, critical debate (Persily & Tucker, 2020; Guess & Lyons, 2020; Karpf, 2021). Daily, people are bombarded with news and opinions from all directions, and the sheer abundance of information makes it difficult for most citizens to distinguish between fact and fiction, or valid information and deliberate or unintentional misinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point, where the public was, to quote Michailidou, Eike, and Trenz’s chapter in this volume, faced with “an unprecedented ‘infodemic’ of mis- and disinformation, creating confusion and distrust and undermining an effective public health response” (Michailidou, 2022, p. 67). Declining trust in journalists, they argue, who traditionally have served as “the intermediaries of truth”, has further exasperated the situation. This has undermined the democratic functioning of the public sphere because deliberative democracy relies on “procedures that allow to establish information value and truth in a way that is consensual to a majority” (ibid., p. 67). The aim is not to ascertain one proclaimed truth, but rather to maintain what John Erik Fossum terms in his chapter as “corrective devices to counter fake news, disinformation, and manipulation”, which include “public spheres and media; political parties and other channels that link citizens to the political system; and popularly elected bodies that translate citizen input into decision-making” (Fossum, 2022, p. 34).
The emergence of post-truth politics was, however, not merely an automatic consequence of a transformation in communication technologies as it has also been consciously endorsed by populist political actors, both through extensive dissemination of disinformation on social media platforms and the systematic discrediting of various epistemic authorities, including critical journalism. This has seriously weakened the “corrective devices” described above, as bogus information is spread without being filtered through professional media outlets or vetted by knowledgeable experts. Former President Trump’s vilification of investigative journalists is well known, and his branding of them as the real “enemy of the people” has helped to delegitimise the mainstream media among his numerous and fervent supporters. “This is an important point in relation to the aspects of polarisation and fragmentation”, Maximilian Conrad comments on Trump’s statements on the media, “both of which are key features of post-truth politics” (Conrad, 2022, p. 85). This critique of critical journalism is directly tied to the populist dichotomous vision of the world, where the alleged ‘authentic’ and ‘pure people’ (‘us’) are pitted against ‘the corrupt elites’ and ‘foreigners’ (‘them’), which includes journalists, academic specialists and immigrants. For populists on the right, elites are defined on moral rather than economic grounds, and for that reason wealthy politicians like Silvio Berlusconi, Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump present themselves as representatives of the ‘people’, while intellectuals and highbrow media persons are classified as morally suspect and politically biased others. Moreover, social media is an ideal conduit for populist messaging because it allows for direct contacts between the populist politicians and the ‘ordinary people’ they seek to court, without any mediation or editing. This facilitates informal communication, in “colloquial language, based on emotions rather than on reasoning, this being close to a populist discursive style” (Manucci, 2017, pp. 475–476).
One of the most important moments in the history of European populism is, without doubt, the Brexit referendum in 2016. Against all odds, the Leave campaign was successful in challenging the British political establishment and the overwhelming majority of experts, who advised against Britain’s exit from the EU, by rallying enough voters to the movement’s cause and thus securing narrow victory on election day. The campaign showed all the hallmarks of post-truth politics, Vittorio Orlando argues in his chapter in this volume, as it was organised by populist political actors, using social media, websites and popular tabloids as the primary arena for their communication. Many of the most effective campaign slogans were dubious, if not pure mis- or disinformation, including predictions of Turkey’s immanent entrance into the EU and the notorious claim that by exiting the EU the British national government would free up large sums of money to fund the National Health Service. Whether people believed this to be true or not was not the main issue, but rather how it fitted into the feeling that EU membership threated British national sovereignty. The core of the Leave campaign’s messaging was that Britain needed to regain control of its affairs—under the banner “‘Take Back Control’”, to quote Orlando, “a slogan implying that the British people were menaced due to European bureaucrats controlling them from above and immigrants threatening their freedom from below” (Orlando, 2022, p. 114). The Italian populist politician Matteo Salvini used similar tropes in his anti-immigration Tweets, as Guilia Evolvi demonstrates in her chapter, although his main term of reference was Europe rather than the Italian nation. “Europe is Christian”, Salvini proclaims, which makes Muslim immigration a dangerous assault on Europe and European values—according to him, ‘they’, the Muslim immigrants, do not belong to ‘our’ community, the Christian Europeans and therefore they must be prevented from entering Italy and Europe (Evolvi, 2022).
The power of populist discourses is not determined by its veracity—or lack thereof—but rather by how they fit into a convincing political narrative. As Anna Björk points out, “national sovereignty is a prominent reference point within the multilateral system” (Björk, 2022, p. 183) and radical populists on the right have been effective in playing the nationality card in their political campaigns. The public sphere is supposed to be, Newman argues, “the shared space for rational dialogue and debate upon which democratic institutions and practices rest” (Newman, 2022, p. 15), but it is also a space where people search for meaning in their lives. For many, that search leads them to familiar places, including imagined national and religious communities. This should not come as a surprise, because national sentiments and religious beliefs have long been central elements in European identity formation and have been consciously cultivated by states and religious institutions, and they still have strong resonance in people’s minds. By presenting immigration as an existential crisis, where ‘aliens’ undermine the values and the cultural characteristics of the nation, the populists “rarely discuss the actual politics (of immigration) in terms of any (more or less) specific policy goals or outcomes”, as Bauvois and Pyrhönen argue in their analysis of the remediating tactics of the Finnish populist right. “With such an approach to politics, any arguments for incremental policy changes appear first and foremost as diversions, minutiae that distract the audience and discussants from perceiving ‘the reality of the total war’” (Bauvois & Pyrhönen, 2022, p. 229s).
The authors of this volume are in general agreement on the detrimental effects that post-truth politics can have on European democracies, as it has disrupted the rules and norms that are necessary for a functioning democratic public sphere. This does not mean that democracy is necessarily doomed, in part because the challenges posed by the post-truth era have triggered resistance among various governmental agencies and international organisations. It is therefore not clear what the future holds, but recent experience from COVID-19 seems to point in opposite directions. On the one hand, through an organised onslaught, a small group of populist activists have been fairly successful in stoking some people’s fears of vaccines and their opposition to various mitigation measures, casting doubt on the scientific information provided by health experts. On the other hand, some commentators have predicted that the pandemic spells the end of the post-truth era. “It would seem plausible to think”, Saul Newman writes, “that when their lives are on the line, people turn once again to scientific authority and expertise; that they are more likely to believe medical officers and epidemiologists than populist politicians and leaders who try to spin the crisis to their advantage” (Newman, 2022, p. 14). As the post-truth conditions remain, with the arena for spreading fake news and for organised misinformation campaigns intact and countless political actors willing to use that arena for their advantage, it is probably premature to declare the total demise of post-truth politics any time soon. At the same time, as support for populist political parties has stagnated or even declined in recent European elections, one can hope that the tide has been stemmed at least for the time being.
Numbers in brackets refer to pages in this volume.
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Hálfdanarson, G., Conrad, M. (2023). Concluding Reflections on 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_12
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