As William Davies wrote in a 2016 New York Times Op-Ed, “Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies”. It is certainly the case and an often-repeated truism that a well-functioning democracy requires a well-informed public. However, the combination of (mainly right-wing) populist movements, alongside the spread of misinformation or disinformation on channels such as social media, are often held as responsible for the rise of “post-truth” politics – where appealing to emotions is dominate, at the expense of factual accuracy. Misinformation specifically refers to information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm; disinformation, on the other hand, refers to the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information with the intention to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purpose of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain.
In 2016, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union through the vote for Brexit, and Donald J. Trump’s election as President of the United States, are not only the two events that heralded the rise in so-called “post-truth” politics. This has also been regarded as a populist backlash against “out-of-touch” political “elites”, and a challenge to the traditional institutions of liberal democracy. Jane Suiter argues that “Arguably, what we are witnessing is a toxic combination of policy blunders on austerity, war and globalisation, couple with a new hybrid media and political system dominated by reality TV, social media and filter bubbles.”
Beyond misinformation and disinformation is also the more sidelined issue of what Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall term “industrial propaganda” in their book The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. Industrial propaganda can refer to advertising, but can also refer to campaigns spearheaded by corporations to undermine reliable evidence that may affect the bottom line. A classic example that Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway provide in the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming is the case of tobacco companies. During the second half of the 20th century, tobacco companies orchestrated a strategy to discredit scientific evidence demonstrating a clear link between smoking and lung cancer. Similar tactics have been used by those in the energy industry and others to foster the impression of uncertainty surrounding the severity and causes of anthropogenic global warming.
Within the context of Western liberal democracies at the very least – the role of the journalistic profession seems all the more crucial. It is true that no written work can ever be truly and fully “objective” so far as it can be entirely divorced from gender, class, race, ethnicity, or other social and structural factors. However, what journalism can at the very least do for democracy, as Rasums Kleis Neilsen argues, is “provide people with […] accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced information about public affairs.”