Post-truth as liberal populism: revisiting Cambridge Analytica

I’ve argued in a few places in recent years (such as this paper) that the notion of ‘post-truth’ has often constituted a form of liberal populism. I mean this in Laclau’s sense of an empty signifier which symbolically structures the social environment. It imagines that a formally harmonious environment was undermined by the intrusion of an outside agent who unsettles the pre-existing order: right-wing populists, fake news, computational propaganda etc. If it wasn’t for these malicious intruders the liberal order advocates of this position support would still be healthy and well. This is how I described it in the paper linked to above:

The discursive explosion surrounding the notion of ‘post-truth’ tracks the symptoms of these changes but misdiagnoses the causes, manifesting in ironically populist formulations which blame an intrusive agent (populist politicians, social media, computational propaganda, etc.) for the interruption of a previously harmonious order. However as Crouch (2004) and Mair (2013) point out, the appearance of harmony rested on a hollowing out of democratic systems, with declining turn outs and party memberships. The ‘third way’ approach to governance, as Giddens (2000) thematised it, which was dominant during this time becomes an object of liberal nostalgia for its present-day advocates who contrast an evidence-based politics of moderation to a passion-based politics of populism. Marres (2018) observes how in reality partisans of evidence were a minority in public life and it was widely recognised that evidence-based debate in itself was insufficient to solve political problems. It was nonetheless the case that fact could be secured in public debate through claims to authority, with a significant shift in the architecture of the public sphere being driven by the breakdown of this authority (Marres 2018, 424).

I was delighted by this recent episode of QAnon Anonymous who have started using their vast Patreon income to support serious investigative journalism. In this episode (the second of a two part series) their deep dive into Cambridge Analytica suggests this was a tendency deliberately manipulated by the whistleblower Christopher Wylie and perpetuated by various figures who had a vested interest in the idea this was a magical new form of social influence. The reality they found was that Cambridge Analytica was a company mixing standard political communications with some questionable data science that was doubted even within the firm. What made it significant was the inflated sales pitch of the Bond-villain like Alexander Nix and the vested interests of those who benefitted from keeping this inflated assessment alive. But let’s not forget the liberals who wished that history would leave them alone, hoping that if only these bad actors could be expunged from the public sphere then everything might finally return to normal.

However it doesn’t follow from this that nothing is happening. To recognise the political economy of hype which surrounds the intersection of technological and social development doesn’t mean we have to deny the significance of the technology; it simply means that need to look at how the organisation of that hype contributes to and shapes the social trajectory of the technology. For example I remain extremely interested in understanding how concepts generated to analyse the digital public sphere (filter bubbles, fake news, computational propaganda, trolling etc) then feed back into and act within that sphere in ways which complicate their analytical uses: 

Social media has figured prominently in the explosion of commentary about authoritarian populism which has followed the tumultuous political events of recent years. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been charged with introducing a range of pathologies into the public sphere, such as filter bubbles (self-reinforcing loops driven by personalisation algorithms), fake news (false information intended to generate advertising revenue) and computational propaganda (misinformation circulated for political purposes).1 There is a transdisciplinary literature which is rapidly improving our understanding of these phenomena on an empirical level, as elements of what Margetts (2017) describes as the acoustics of social media. These terms have simultaneously entered the public sphere, figuring in explanations of the political upheaval witnessed in recent years (Robertson 2019; Davies 2020). Such claims inevitably extend beyond what is empirically verifiable, as can be seen in everyday examples of Twitter users accusing other accounts of being ‘bots’ during debates, activists ascribing a central role to computational propaganda in explaining political outcomes they see as undesirable or politicians dismissing inconvenient reporting as ‘fake news’ promulgated by their opponents. The evidence base being assembled by computational social scientists is immensely valuable under these conditions (Margetts et al. 2016). It’s nonetheless unlikely to discipline their political deployment, with these explanations entering into the repertoires of contention through which movements and organisations enact their claims (Tilley and Tarrow 2015).

This is a fairly routine feature of social life in which expert categories drift into social life as lay categories. However my suspicion is that social platforms lead to an acceleration of what Giddens called the double hermeneutic which, unless I’m simply looking in the wrong place, we lack an adequate conceptual framework for understanding. This is one of many reasons why understanding how academics (as well as other forms of expert and opinion former) use social media in a practical quotidian sense has wider ramifications for how we think about the dynamics of socially complex and digitally mediated systems.

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