#98: The Populist Attack on Democracy During the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit the world, it unleashed more than just a deadly virus. It has put us all in a crucible. Nature has been testing our ability to be political animals, forcing our societies and our politics to make impossible decisions. Who shall we protect? Am I my fellow citizen’s keeper? How much economic and social pain can we tolerate while defending us against a virus? If this spiky microorganism could speak, it might very well want to quote Shelley’s Ozymandias and say “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Desperation is political dynamite. It has the ability to creep into every crevice of society, poison minds and souls, and even to tear everything asunder. There is a reason politics seems at a loss sometimes. We are still racing through the night, the outlines of the path becoming clearer only to threaten to be obscured again. We have been playing this deadly game for over a year now, and it is not over till it is over.

The only guidance system we have is science. It is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that works. Its imperfection lies in the availability of data which influences the analysis of the problem and the creation of solutions. Science yields tentative answers, which eventually may form a theory, but everything is always under revision depending on new facts. This is a politician’s nightmare, and it is not intuitive for how human beings think. There is a reason that the systematic pursuit of science is an invention in itself that took millennia to take hold. Yet the fight against superstition and anti-science is never won, and it has become more difficult during the pandemic.

Science works in the collective mode, not in the heroic narrative of the lone voice in the wilderness. For there to be a situation in which established scientific view is so solidly mistaken, during a global emergency, is peculiar. As Carl Sagan has frequently said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The scientific consensus, based on the available data, is clear: the pandemic is real, the threat is real, and the approved vaccines work safely. The extraordinary position here is not the denier perspective, but the scientific consensus.

Yet it is the heroic mode, the tale of the hero fighting against the forces of darkness, that appears most seductive to human beings. There seem to be only a small number of medical, legal or scientific experts (typically in fields other than virology or epidemiology) that disagree with the established view about these matters. They have taken on the mantle of the hero that can fight against the medical crisis by denying its existence and by pointing to a wholly different threat.

We all have seen that our personal relationships have been put under tremendous stress. One of my closest friends has become a Covid denier. They have always been more interested in esotericism, astrology and popular psychology than in science or academic thinking. Their children and they themselves suffered from the lockdown, and this suffering led them down the path laid out to them by the algorithm of popular social media platforms.

There is an element of real pain here that is exploited by these platforms. People indeed feel crushed both by the pandemic and the measures taken to curb it. We are irrational beings much more than we would care to admit. Fear of the virus may lead to denying its existence. Lack of understanding of science may lead people to be suspicious of experts changing their minds when facts change. overall. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were famous for dismissing experts and won elections on this very bias. We can all see politicians being frequently helpless in the face of the pandemic. People need someone to tell them that it will all be ok. If desperate enough, people will turn to false prophets. History is full of such stories, and it should teach us humility. Our system has indeed failed all those who now are moving to turn away from it, it has failed them in matters of education, civic engagement, and the recognition of everyone’s individual dignity. We are figuratively throwing people to the wolves, and down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole is electronic nowadays, and it is powerful. The alternative world view unfolding to the initiated speaks of a pandemic planned in a global cooperation of politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and the typical cast of allegedly diabolical characters. The sinister purpose remains unclear but overall follows the well-worn paths of typical antisemitic conspiracy lore. The more you enter this world, the more you are inundated by it, and the more you connect to the similarly initiated few that are the only ones able to see the light and to prepare for a post-“plandemic” future. The pandemic, of course, does not exist as the established media want us to believe, but instead there is talk that a “Great Reset” is on the way to allegedly subjugate all of humanity.

At first I was confused about this. What could possibly be the motivation behind the denial of the existence or threat level of the pandemic, or the safety of the vaccines?

The answer is emerging more and more. The Coronavirus Pandemic is used by populists to attack democracy itself.

We see some of this happening currently in the United States. With the Republican party and the conservative movement in disarray, there are some voices echoing conspiratorial notes. Outside the United States, the picture becomes more clear. In Germany, for instance, a new alliance between discontented voters who would formerly identify with the established parties either of the left, center or the right, now are coalescing into the New Right. Leading players of the so-called “Querdenker” movement (“critical” or “lateral” thinkers) ally themselves with sovereign citizens, with esoterically or anthroposophically influenced groups, with old and new authoritarians.

Their demands are clear: sweep away the old system, which includes all politicians, all established media, all scientists and all academics and all their supporters. Establish a new, allegedly truly democratic movement and govern through the direct will of the people determined by the assumed wisdom of crowds. Trust the natural healing powers of the human body, and let nature run its course. Reject “globalists” – a smear word created to distort the legitimate critique of neoliberal globalization and turn it into an antisemitically tinged libel of the United Nations, free-traders and multinationalists – and bring back the nation state. Seek alliance with Russia, as Putin has taken his country down that path already.

This sounds very familiar. It has a name, only its clothes are slightly recycled. If we let it fester, if we do not find clear answers, the national socialist movement is already growing, hiding behind – as it used to – a romantic fixation with nature, with esotericism, with anti-science and populist authoritarianism claiming to be democratic.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Coronavirus will eventually be defeated, managed, return to memory, with the possibility of return. The political virus that we deemed to have overcome is still lingering. As Berthold Brecht has said, “the womb is fertile still from whence this crawled.”

#72: Can We Trust The Media?

I. Introduction, because this is a Longer Text and it Needs Headings

There appears to be a sense among many people that there is a problem with “the media.” Trust in media seems low, and there is a societal division with regards to which media is seen as reliable, which as misleading or fake. These divisions appear along most frequently along partisan lines. If it wasn’t such a serious problem, it would be quite humorous to see how different media (and their supporters) criticize their competitors as being unreliable, yet they themselves believe steadfastly in their own reliability (and so do their supporters).

Indeed, we seem to have moved away from a consumer attitude towards media, and instead to a supporter attitude. The media you consume defines you more than ever before, it seems.

As to the criticism, specifically news media engender a suite of response archetypes:

  1. I trust everything media sources supporting view A are saying, and distrust everything from view B. I read to reinforce the views I already have, whether consciously or not. A media outlet that has proven trustworthy in the past will be given the benefit of the doubt; but if a media outlet (and their corporate or ideological sponsors) are suspect for a variety of reasons, I steer away from it.
  2. I am generally skeptical of everything I read, see and hear. I try to verify everything I read, even of news sources that I am more skeptical about.
  3. I do not believe anything from establishment media – whatever their alleged ideological background – and am relying instead on alternative forms of information.

These are, of course, stereotypes. Nobody falls into any category neatly, and may change their views over time, depending on life circumstances, mood, or social circles. In general, position 1 may be the most common. Position 2 is probably aspirational, and position 3 the biggest source of social division right now. Even if you’re in opposing ideological camps, if you are still in position 1, you inhabit the same universe as everyone else. Media is essentially self-referential, and hardly an hour may come by in which those holding view A will not somehow reflect about and position themselves towards view B, and vice versa. Opposites do not just attract, they require each other like opposing parties in a game – and just like in a game, you hope both are playing fair, but you suspect they won’t always (except your team is always right…).

But let us contextualize this critique a bit more. What do we mean by “media”?

II. A Brief Excursion into Media Critique

A medium is that through which information is channeled, through which the world becomes represented through us. We have no direct means of accessing the world; even our sensory organs mediate existence to us, and our brain interprets it. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes our reality as seeing merely shadows of reality represented on the wall of a cave, but as never being able to see reality itself directly (Republic 7.514a). Through education, specifically philosophy, he hopes we can unshackle ourselves from that scenario and see the real world, and see the ideas and the divine on our own without needing to rely on representations of them – viz. without the need for media.

Plato gives a second example (Phaedrus 274e-275b) when discussing the consequences of writing, and comes to a depressing conclusion:

“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

Furthermore, once the speaker is replaced by an author that is no longer available for conversation, texts replace conversation. This eliminates the human element from the equation, and creates distance, and opens up the possibility of a distortion from truth, from nuance, from interpretation and dialogic engagement. Culture – as transmitted through media – cedes to be a community-centered activity; it becomes an industry.

Theodor Adorno (yes, we are making a more than 2200-year jump) pointed out the dangers of such a culture industry, informed by his experiences with the Nazi propaganda machine, but worried about the possible rise of a machinery of entertainment, disinformation and commodification of truth in the West.

Both Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”) pointed to the properties inherent in technology itself to shape the any message mediated through it. We cannot ignore that the purpose of television is always entertainment. As Postman notes, in our obsession to be afraid of the Orwellian scenario of constant state supervision, we have given in to Huxley’s scenario of voluntary abdication of truth in pursuit of entertainment.

Gloomily, Michel Foucault, echoing Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, kept reminding us that any form of speech, any discourse, is imbued with a form of power. There is no neutral information, no neutral discourse, no escape. All we can do is become aware of the power of discourse, and to keep this power dimension in mind always.

Finally though, there can be a source of constructive optimism also if we follow Jürgen Habermas’ relentless exhortation to create a new and functioning public sphere, after the old one (the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the Renaissance and Enlightenment era salons of thinkers and dreamers, the old style newspaper landscape) is hopelessly lost. But if we aim for deliberative democracy, aim for the recognition of humanity of each other, and create an ideal space for discourse, we may just find a solution and do not have to abandon all hope in this post-Dantean infernal chaos.

What are we supposed to learn from this?

There is no neutral medium, and no media product – whether news, web sites, television, film, books, etc. – should be consumed uncritically. While some media products may manipulate to a high degree, there is no media that is not in some way manipulative or biased, whether through active commission of lies, or through omission of unwelcome truths.

III. Today’s Culture Industry: News Media and Corporate Ownership

While the critique of media pertains to non-news items also, most criticism is reserved for news media, but this is a short-sighted approach. If we follow the money, we will see that old-style media critique is still relevant.

By considering corporate ownerships and relations, we may gain some insight into possible influences on news reporting that may compromise the neutrality of some, if not all news outlets. That does not mean that all news and commentary originating from them may be tainted or unreliable, but it may point us as the audience towards being a bit more skeptical overall about what is reported and how, and what is left out. Money talks, and if corporations and governments are involved, there might be a specific bias. Ties to non-democratic countries that fight against complete freedom of the press (like China, Russia and Qatar) certainly will limit perspectives. Also, in cases where a company owns several news sources, you may find yourself in the same universe of similar news re-confirming themselves. Big media conglomerates also demonstrate that there are clear corporate ties between news, entertainment, and technology companies.

Current corporate ties for major news sources are as follows (see also: Wikipedia, TitleMax):

  • CNN: AT&T, Warner, HBO, Turner Broadcasting (upcoming theme parks in Zhuhai and Beijing, China, non-democratic)
  • FOX NEWS: NewsCorp – which means New York Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times (UK), The Sun (UK); the non-news division of FOX belongs to Disney now
  • MSNBC + NBC News: Comcast, Hulu, Universal, Telemundo (upcoming theme park in Beijing, China, non-democratic)
  • ABC News: Disney (operates theme park in Hong Kong, China, non-democratic)
  • CBS News: National Amusements, Viacom, Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon (upcoming theme park in Chongqing, China, non-democratic)
  • PBS News: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, donor- and subscriber model, solidly trying to be neutral
  • Yahoo!: Verizon
  • LinkedIn: operates a censored Chinese branch
  • Washington Post: Amazon
  • Russia Today: controlled by Russian government (non-democratic)
  • Global Times: controlled by Chinese government (non-democratic)
  • Deutsche Welle: controlled by German government
  • France24: controlled by French government
  • BBC: independent from UK government
  • Al Jazeera: controlled by Qatari government (non-democratic)
  • Breitbart, Parler: Mercer Family Foundation
  • Guardian, Boston Globe, New York Times, The Hill, Politico: currently independent

This list is certainly incomplete, and is just supposed to illustrate the complexity of the problem.

IV. Ideology

We certainly know that ideology of the news channel or paper certainly plays a role (what I described as “side A” and “side B” above).

I am split on what the consequence of that is. Do viewers already gravitate to a specific view, and then consume news conforming their bias? Or is their own bias created by a one-sided diet of news? I suspect this is a chicken-and-egg problem.

One more consistently raised but very valid criticism is the increased blending of news and commentary. You could add also the undue influence that any editorial stance – even if it may be contained to a commentary section – may exert over the entire enterprise.

Is news supposed to help people make up their own mind, or is it telling them what to think? Can it even make them do that – at which point would they risk them switching the channel, or buying a different paper?

V. The Decline of News Journalism

The real story here, of course, is the decline, if not outright destruction of real journalism. I am talking about newspapers – not because I am old-fashioned, but because that’s where most of real journalism actually still happens.

Television news is first entertainment, then commentary, then news – of course that is a polemical opinion, but especially in the American context it rings true. (In the German context, it depends on the channel – the society-supported subscriber-based channels ARD and ZDF do have functioning news rooms, and are focusing on news. Private channels like SAT1, RTL and PRO7 are more entertainment. Similar probably in the UK with regards to the BBC vs. independent television news).

I may have watched to much Superman and have been influenced by its Daily Planet, but aren’t newspaper newsrooms still more important than we all think? Where does your news come from? Who is typically cited on TV? News agencies (Reuters, DPA, etc.) and Newspapers, I presume.

More and more big newspapers are streamlined, news rooms made smaller, commentary enslaved by Twitter and Facebook, content syndicated, and small newspapers are disappearing or managed in bulk. This destroys the very fabric of our society. Who reports any more on local corruption and malfeasance? Certainly it is still happening, despite there not being any stories in the local newspaper – if you still have one.

If Media are still to be the fourth estate, they need to still exist in all parts of the country, and report on anything possible, and monitor and critique every single aspect of society, culture and politics.

VI. Balanced Skepticism

Returning to the sentiment with which I began: Are we in a position now where we seriously cannot trust the media at all anymore? No. But we all need to do our work, conceptually, and financially by supporting the news sources we do consume and trust.

Can we trust the media? As long as the media still mainly trusts us to make up our own mind, I would say yes, and would welcome the diversity of voices that can be heard on all sides of any debate.

In the end, there is only one truth. There are facts and non-facts. Something is either true or false. Beyond those distinctions though, there are grey areas of opinion, commentary, selection bias, spin, framing, etc. We need to be aware of the limitations of each news source, and we need to do our work as citizens to look beyond just one source of news. This is the only scientific and democratic attitude that can prevent us from being lodged in too deep our own filter bubbles.

Thus, if a news item only occurs within a specific news ecosystem and is ignored or not reported everywhere else, this should raise concern. If there is a definitive slant in opinion and commentary all the time, and it may affect what is reported in the assumedly neutral news as well. That does not mean there has to be bias, but we should assume there can be. An overall skeptical attitude is always a good thing.

That being said, we can indeed be skeptical of everything, but we also must put this in perspective, and our skepticism should be balanced. Reality is murky, and just as we cannot trust everything automatically, we also cannot distrust everything automatically. We need to follow the saying that “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” as suggested by Carl Sagan. I have come to believe that it pays to listen to Carl Sagan most of the time.