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Understanding the Rise of Populist Politics

The second ANZCA 2017 keynote this morning is by Silvio Waisbord, who shifts our focus to the recent resurgence of populist politics around the world. We must study such populism beyond electoral results, however, reviewing broader structural trends in public communication, connecting to other structures and events, and identifying built-in trends that are conducive to the communicative politics that populism represents. What questions, then, should we ask about populism, communication, and the media?

Approaches to this include research into media effects; studies of specific types of news content; investigations of the features of populist discourse; retracings of media (industry) developments; examinations of new forms and platforms for public communication; and analyses of the intersections of media democracy and populism.

One problem here is that the term populism remains poorly defined, however. It challenges the orthodoxies of western political thought: it is not related to one or another side of politics, and represents a 'thin-centred' ideology. But all populisms share a very strong, strident critique of 'the media' and of media corporations, even though many populist politicians are also strongly supported by certain powerful media operators. Donald Trump is the poster child for this (selective) anti-media stance, of course.

Populism is on the edge of democracy, therefore; its illiberalism brings together strange ideological bedfellows, who are united in their opposition to fundamental democratic principles. They take an agonistic view of politics, in which all politics is conflict, and a free media are part of the system that must be fought; by contrast, they engage with strongly partisan, friendly media actors and support digital harassment networks of trolls attacking their enemies. When in power, they actively seek to undermine the freedom of the press, as seen in Poland, Hungary, or Turkey. Populism, in other words, has no use for a communicative commons.

Second, then, populism also positions 'the people' as a single, unified actor, in opposition to the communication commons. So defined, the people – unified in class, race, and national identity – stand opposed to elites, media, cosmopolitans, and international organisations; they reject a commitment to democratic pluralism; and in this definition the real-life heterogeneity of the people is ignored and rejected.

Third, populism thus also has a palpable contempt for conventional political discourse. The search for truth, as complicated as it is, is fundamental to democratic communication, but populism sees truths as inherently partial and anchored in particular social interests; populist truth-seeking politics therefore promote a particular version of the truth that stands in opposition to 'elite', dominant views. But populism is not the bastard child of postmodernism; it jettisons the entire edifice of liberal democratic truth-telling, and instead substitutes a preconceived 'truth' of its own making.

Is there an elective affinity between populism and 'post-truth' politics, then? Rather than establishing an Orwellian 'Ministry of Truth', broadcasting a centralised propaganda narrative through effective mass media channels, dis- and reintermediation processes in the more complex current communicative environment have resulted have undermined conventional regimes of truth in favour of the circulation of fragmented, fractured truths that have relativise the very concept of facts and truth.

There are deep pockets of misinformation and 'alternative facts', therefore, rejecting scientific findings and historical facts and colouring public views of government policies and their impacts. This is even in spite of the growth in fact-checking units in the media, whose impact on public attitudes remains limited and is generally distributed along party lines. Indeed, there are vastly diverging contracts between different groups of news producers and news readers now.

This also enables new populist stances built not on lying (hiding the truth) but on bullshitting (ignoring the truth); this is an important distinction because it may also imply the willing participation of partisan media organisations and their audiences in the bullshitting process. These groups are driven by deep-seated counter-factual beliefs; they have built for themselves a consistent system that ignores and bypasses established facts altogether, and this has become a great deal easier in the chaotic, fragmented contemporary communication system.

Populism thus deepens worrisome trends in contemporary politics; it exacerbates problems and hinders the reconstruction of the communications commons. How this affects communication and democracy will play out differently in different nations, depending on specific local contexts, of course; how it can be addressed by progressive forces seeking to protect a communication commons remains a major challenge for all of us, though. One important step here will be to identify the possibilities for democratic communication, from principles to practice.