Filter Bubbles, post-truth politics and the rise of populism

I know that there are other ways of seeing the world, and I’m happy that people have them, but I just don’t want to be in their world.”  Contribution to BBC Seriously podcast – Bursting the Social Network Bubble


What a fascinating time it must be to be studying politics. Although for university academics it must be somewhat disconcerting too. Indeed maybe they well have to bin the traditional textbooks. There is a convergence of factors – filter bubbles, our post-truth world and the rise of populism – that are convulsing modern politics.

I remember hearing about a book called The Filter Bubble when it came out in 2011. Author Eli Pariser’s central thesis was that social media algorithms are selectively shaping what a user sees on their feeds based on information about them. Consequently, we are in a bubble in which the news we receive serves to confirm what we already believe:

The filter bubble tends to dramatically amplify confirmation bias – in a way, it’s designed to. Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable; consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult. This is why partisans of one political stripe tend not to consume the media of another. As a result, an information environment built on click signals will favour content that supports our existing notions about the world over content that challenges them.”

Pariser’s premise did seem to ring true, but I didn’t pay that much attention to it. But the events of the last twelve months have validated Pariser’s work. We have seen the effects of these echo chambers. There are two negative aspects to this phenomenon. Firstly, we are failing to exercise our critical faculties. We do tend to want to only hear views and facts that confirm our worldview. But these filter bubbles go beyond this; opposing ideas are not just wrong, they are totally alien. We just cannot imagine where they could even come from. This is why I criticised the use of safe spaces and no- platforming at universities. This is not just a problem of dumb people being taken in by dumb ideas. Sometimes the worst offenders can be the highly educated. Being articulate, they are better able to justify their prejudices.

In this polarised world we are also have different people accessing different facts. This is what is known as the post-truth world, the realm of fake news. In the pilot programme of The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005, American television satirist Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness. According to Wikipedia, it refers to a truth that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively from the gut or because it feels right without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. It may be a fake word invented by a fake person, but it does capture something. Both the Brexit campaign and Trump campaigns were characterised by extreme mendaciousness, but it goes beyond right-wing populism. Liberals and the left can live in a fantasy world too. I did like that quote from Kellyanne Conway, Donald J Trump’s campaign manager:

The most fake piece of news I heard all along up until Election Day and still hear from some people is that Donald Trump couldn’t win. How’s that for fake news?”

Trump is the ultimate manifestation of the rise of populism, especially right-wing populism. It’s not just the Donald and Brexit; Marine Le Pen may yet become the National Front President of France. Similar populist revolts can be seen in Austria, in Germany and the Netherlands. On the left we have the rise of left wing populism in Greece and Spain, and of course the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. It does seem that the right have been more successful at the populist game.

I view populism, whether it be of the left or right, as a nightmare. What I hate about it is the way they peddle simple solutions, a vision of the world which denies the existence of divisions of interests and opinions within the people. It sees a Manichean world of pure people and the corrupt elite. Political opponents lack legitimacy and there are always scapegoats to blame for the country’s ills. Populism tends to get ugly when it gets into power. I have chronicled the horrible failures of Chavismo and Peronism in Venezuela and Argentina respectively. Apart from all the all obvious things to dislike about Trump, I am horrified by his views on trade, many of which he shares with Bernie Sanders. I think the populists will be found out once in power, but they might have done a lot of damage by then

I am a bit pessimistic. There is no doubt that liberal democracy is in crisis. There are problems with globalisation and inequality can have toxic effects on society. You can’t understand the success of Berlusconi and Putin without looking at the chaos and failure that preceded them. Of course there is nothing unprecedented about any of this. Yes, we have new technology but we have still seen many of these phenomena. People have always tended to follow the news that reflects their ideology. Fake news is nothing new. And populist movements have arisen before. The comparison between Trump and Hitler is ridiculous. Historian Niall Ferguson found a better analogy with the now forgotten figure of Denis Kearney, leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California. Kearney belonged to a movement of nativist parties and Anti-Coolie” clubs whose goal was to end Chinese immigration into the United States. Indeed, he was behind the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” Curiously he was an Irish immigrant himself. But then Trump is he son of a Scottish immigrant and grandson of a German.

I often quote that Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times – I fear that we are about to experience this at first hand.

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