Managing Culture Wars, Tribalism & Disinformation
Across the world, from Europe to America, and Brazil to China, populist actors have been rousing people against each other and ‘the Establishment’ in a wave of divisive nationalism, disinformation and polarisation. Their goals have been to gain power by tapping into discontent with existing systems, processes, institutions and public figures. They consolidate influence through patronage, altering the political, electoral and information environment and eroding accountability.
Public trust in politics, media and science and democratic institutions in countries like UK, US and Germany are now at an all-time low. This trend escalated in recent years through rising inequality and social divides, decline in living standards and purchasing power, and a range of crises and scandals. These weaknesses were exploited by the current wave of populists and extremists into a war on liberalism and democratic institutions including a so-called “elite” of experts, intellectuals, mainstream media and socially mobile professionals.
Social media has accelerated the spread of narratives that pit sections of the populace against each other along ever-evolving dividing lines. Every social debate is turned into a question of core identity and values and a test of nationality and patriotism. The stakes have been raised so high and means of communications so polarised that reasonable, balanced and informed debate is hard to find. The concept of truth has become subjective as people base their judgements on their own limited experience and that of their echo chamber, without verifying facts or exploring other perspectives.
Many people are unaware their rights and national stability are at risk. Others are all too aware and coming together in various movements across the globe to counter threats to democracies, social cohesion and cross-border cooperation.
We are consulting renowned experts and politicians from across Europe, UK and US to explore the political science and tactics behind today’s culture wars, as disruptive forces exploit fault lines and grievances to polarise our societies by weaponizing issues like immigration, the pandemic, climate change and racism.
We discuss the use of disinformation and conspiracy theories, the appeal of simplistic and misleading solutions, partisanship and identity politics – all amplified through distorting social media, partisan media outlets and new groups and think-tanks.
We debate ways to forge effective communications and fight disinformation, restore rational public debate and rediscover common ground through deliberative democracy.
We explore how to influence political discourse to encourage healthier fact-based debate, confront far-right threats, restore belief in liberal democracy and globalization, and plug the gaps between governing institutions and their populations.
Below are some comments from our sessions about the problems and solutions. The US 2020 election and Brexit were used as case studies, with insights shared by representatives from governments, international organisations, academia and grassroots campaigners.
The DANGERS OF DISINFORMATION & DIVISION
“The issue of tribalism and manipulation is fundamental because if we can’t stop our societies dividing still further, then we can’t get everyone behind a common agenda to face future challenges. If we can’t agree facts or priorities, how can we share the same reality or society?”
“We are in a systemic conflict between democracy and non-democracy – this is like the Reformation age where people held beliefs so strongly that science and facts did not sway them.”
“Disinformation is at the heart of the culture wars. We have to avoid the sort of media presentation that it’s a Punch and Judy show. There is an objective truth and a context to events and facts that needs to be communicated. And if we don’t start from that, then we can’t solve the information problem and we can’t address the culture wars either.”
“You have a group of people driven by need for chaos, who just want to watch the whole thing burn, especially institutions or elites they think are disdainful of them. And so they share a lot of misinformation, spread at huge scale by social media.”
“The reason that hyper-partisan leaders and authoritarians are rising is by leveraging pre-existing polarization caused by the behaviour of elites, media coverage, economic factors and identity conflict.”
“Polarisation is the process of othering, seeing the world through a lens of ‘us and them’. Disrupters then layer in aspects of morality to create political sectarianism, because what’s happening in highly polarized countries is similar to traditional conflicts determined along religious grounds.”
“This is a crisis of trust as much as a crisis of echo chambers: people have lost complete trust in the other side as well as the very institutions that provide factual information, causing them to burrow into different informational ecosystems, trusting only partisan voices and attacking distrusted media. This toxic cocktail of behaviours, imbued with issues of morality and values, has entrenched polarisation and could even lead to violent conflict.”
“We didn’t take seriously enough the risks inherent in new media environments as we quickly created a system where the rewards to the platforms and their structures reinforce biases of cognitive dissonance. So now we fight across different lines on social media, as there are few other spaces where we come together for debate.”
“Our democratic processes are misfiring. It’s part of the story of what’s feeding the populist surge. We need to look at reviving the quality of European democracy across several dimensions – political, cultural, psychological, economic and digital.”
Polarisation in America
Political polarisation in the US continues to play out in a febrile environment as former President Trump faces a number of civil and criminal trials. Trump supporters are caught up in a swirl of conspiracy theories and exaggerated grievances about stolen elections, patriotism, race and identity politics, exacerbated by right-wing media, Republican influencers and Trump himself. Democratic supporters call for justice and a block on Trump’s return to power which they fear would further destabilise the country. Some political scientists cannot see a way out of this deep polarisation.
“The scale of domestic disinformation in the US is drastic and underreported.”
“The 2020 US presidential campaign was not so much about new tactics, but the result of long-term investment in influence campaigns that saw pro-Trump right-wing media and messengers achieving greater credibility and reach, up to the level of the NYT, CNN and other established media outlets.”
“Just after the US election, Trump tweeted 300 times about voting fraud and conspiracy with each message reaching over 84 million people and being picked up by mainstream media. So, we can’t depolarise if you have powerful people with huge platforms and media platforms pushing in the opposite direction.”
“In the US, contempt for the other party is probably the most powerful predictor of political behaviour in voting today. For Republican supporters, racial resentment is increasingly a factor.”
“Trump supporters have doubled down in their support for him. It’s too painful to admit they were wrong. The most we can hope for is that they will be drawn to another less extreme leader further down the line.”
The UK & Brexit
“In UK, the divisions across cultural lines, reinforced through Brexit, are now much stronger than across economic left-right lines.”
“It is nonsense that mainstream media and opinion-formers in UK have been biased towards the liberal left and suppressed right wing views. There are more British papers on the right than left. People who pursue this argument confuse truth with balance. In general, the inquiry into truth is often inquiry into power and money and wealth, which will often appear to be a liberal left point of view.”
“Before the 2016 referendum, there was a real lack of understanding about the EU among BBC journalists. We were made to do a survey and quiz, but afterwards many said they still didn’t understand what the EU did. So how on earth could we expect journalists to explain the issues competently to the wider population? We haven’t had enough education in the UK about how the EU connects to us and affects our society.”
Better evidence-based understanding of the effects of polarisation and changing attitudes rather than assumptions
“Across the board, bad actors are trying to erode trust, including new actors like China and Columbia, so in the US, Democrats had to work hard to inoculate against that in advance of the election. We also did a mapping of narratives by state and issue, so we really knew what people were exposed to and could counter myths.”
“We need to know the enemy – polarisation is often driven by oligarchs who are unhappy with democratic accountability and systems that curtail their freedom, so they use their money to influence and distort democratic outcomes. Others are mobilising people to flout authority, spread COVID, riot, deny climate change – all adding further chaos and complication.”
More systemic efforts to combat disinformation and bust myths including ways to regulate social media, support balanced media coverage and sensitize the population.
“We need to encourage people to fact-check and be aware of disinformation without threatening their identity; we need to change algorithms to prioritise higher quality news and find ways to stop people gaming the digital media system.”
“The latest frontiers of disinformation are about climate change action, immigration, economic recovery. To deal with this, we need to get people to talk about concrete actions rather than abstract ideas.”
“At the EU, we don’t want to fall into the trap of countering propaganda with propaganda itself, so we are keen to reframe the narrative into a positive one – solutions not problems.”
“The European green and digital deal is the way for Europe to get out of the crisis and look forward to a more sustainable and equitable Europe. And of course, as a Union, we also want to project a message of unity.”
More consensus politics, bi-partisanship and alliances, and long-term thinking to tackle major challenges
“There has been a catastrophic decline in trust in politics and politicians – the feeling that people are being ignored as politicians insult each other, refuse to cooperate or even address the issues that people care about. This has been exploited by populist and nationalist parties.”
“People want to see political parties working together to help citizens as a priority. This tradition of political compromise and coalitions are more common in countries like Germany than in the UK.”
“We need a shift in political thinking to refocus on the longer term, not short term. And in terms of leadership, we need to see determination, patience and a willingness to take risks.”
More ways to bridge gaps between elite and people and restore trust in democracy through accessible institutional communications, better economic policies and ethical capitalism; more emphasis on political ethics, accountability and reform to ensure more effective representation
“We need to be alive to attacks on the credibility and independence of our institutions, because if you don’t save those, you won’t be able to save the sort of politics that we want.”
“For many voters, Brexit did not have much to do with Europe but was more about immigration and grievance, including the unequal concentration of wealth and skills and geographic inequalities. We need policies to address these problems, not policies that exploit them.”
“The Brexit crisis was a real revelation that that EU can’t just continue as before and expect people to understand what the EU is doing and trust us. So we changed track and started to show in clear language how the EU is relevant to people in their daily lives.”
More use of innovations in participatory democracy at the local level, ensuring results percolate up to political decision-makers and policy development; more mediation and values-based dialogue that promote common ground
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen a huge rise in innovative ways of getting citizens involved in decision-making, like citizens assemblies and new civic initiatives around the pandemic. This signals that citizens are mobilizing and looking for ways to be heard.”
“Evidence shows if you put people with differing opinions in a room and get them to deliberate around very concrete issues, they do converge. It’s not a magical solution, but an indirect long-term way of bringing people together – because if people feel they have a voice and a stake in the system, they’re less likely to turn to anti-system parties.”
“There are no monsters here, generally speaking. We do have a lot in common and compassion for one another, if we only listen to each other, perhaps through more citizen assemblies and community dialogues with facilitators to break down barriers.”
“In terms of bridge-building, it’s not a question of right or wrong. The ways our information environments are separating us are making us less understanding of the diversity of ways in which people see the world. Getting out of Left-Right thinking and binary culture wars and into more nuanced ways of understanding underlying beliefs could get us to a better place.”
“We need to go much broader and create a networked infrastructure that extends beyond capital cities and county towns and into villages, forming a kind of support network for new kinds of democratic innovation. We also need more understanding of how to marry a culture of individualism and the politics of agency, driven by the rise of the networked society, with the need for governments to be making trade-offs and being sources of authority as judicial and political decision makers. Only then can we understand what that new form of politics looks like.”
More future-focused strategizing between players in shaping a more responsive democracy in line with realities such as technology, environmental demands, voter concerns and policy needs.
“We also need to have next generation voices in this conversation, using their languages and perspectives.”
“We need to build a system-oriented approach with a field of actors to collaborate across issues and drivers in media, tech, politics and popular culture – together we can then confront the multi-layered forces accelerating division. Some would engage in soft power having coffee with people and building bridges, others compile data and research, and others engage in the day-to-day combat of national discourse.”
“We need a human-centred and long-term perspective in order to design an effective future democracy model suitable for societies in the 2020s-30s. This should take into account the big shifts over time occurring in demography, value changes and the impact of technology. Technology disruption and next generation views could drive this change away from outdated models of representative democracy.”
“There’s no silver bullet – we’re going to be working on these issues over the next decade and beyond.”