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Knowledge, Counterknowledge and Conspiracy in Populist Argumentation


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Presentation at ECPR 2017, panel "Misinformation, Post-truth and Alternative Facts. The End of Voters’ Competence?", section "Are Anti-Politics and Post-Truth the New Face of Political Communication?"

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Knowledge, Counterknowledge and Conspiracy in Populist Argumentation

  1. 1. Knowledge, Counterknowledge and Conspiracy in Populist Argumentation Tuukka Ylä-Anttila, University of Tampere
  2. 2. Motivation • Claim 1: Post-truth: politicians (populists) indifferent towards the truth (Economist 10 Sep 2016, Guardian 15 Nov 2016) • Claim 2: Populists are anti-intellectual, base arguments on feelings and ‘experience of the common people’ rather than expertise (Saurette & Gunster, Wodak, Oliver & Rahn, Hofstadter, Hawkins) • Do these claims hold in the case of Finnish online countermedia and populist mobilization?  A radical-right populist upsurge 2007–  Government: The (True) Finns Party  Online: Hommaforum, MV-lehti (‘WTF Media’)  Street: Soldiers of Odin
  3. 3. Theoretical background • Social psychology: social biases affect communication of knowledge  People self-fill gaps in causal narratives (Lewandowsky), believe claims that confirm views (Kahan) and don’t believe dissonant corrections (Nyhan) • Sociology: authorities deteriorate in (post)modernity  People get knowledge from others, not inquiry (Van Dijk), even modern institutions based on faith (Giddens)  “How do you choose which expert to believe?” (Knight)  Not all ‘alt. facts’ are false (Bale, Keeley)  Conspiracists ascribe causality/agency on events for ontological security, to explain the experienced world (Aupers, Fenster, Gosa) • Alternative knowledge claims are highly salient in modern politics, particularly populism
  4. 4. Modes of epistemic anti-elitism • Epistemological populism:  “to valorize the knowledge of ‘the common people,’ which they possess by virtue of their proximity to everyday life, as distinguished from the rarefied knowledge of elites” (Saurette & Gunster) • Counterknowledge:  “an alternative knowledge system ... challenging ... knowledge industries such as the academia or the mainstream press” (Gosa) • Conspiracism:  “a populist theory of power (89) ... an interpretive framework (95) ... the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order (1)” (Fenster)
  5. 5. Data
  6. 6. Topic modeling • “LDA [...] assumes that there are a set of topics in a collection (the number is specified in advance) [...] Terms that are prominent within a topic are those that tend to occur in documents together more frequently than one would expect by chance [...] each document exhibits those topics with different proportions” (DiMaggio et al. 2013, 577–578) • A probabilistic, mixed-membership model: what we get are probabilities of topics per document and document per topic, based on word frequencies • An unsupervised machine learning method: fully inductive in the modeling stage, no researcher input
  7. 7. Validation • Internal, external, quantitative, qualitative
  8. 8. Epistemological populism – not there! • Rather than valorizing experiential knowledge or feelings, contributors often emphasize rationality and empirical evidence:  “Rational, evidence-based thought is our weapon against opinions based on feelings” (WTF Media, 22 Apr 2016)  “That’s just abstract poetry, how can you get a PhD in that” (Hommaforum user on sociology, 19 Feb 2016)  “Attitudes towards refugees are an excellent example of how cognitive bias affects people. The tendency to skate over all negative consequences is a bias, in which one thinks one’s own view is based in reason” (Hommaforum, 19 Nov 2015)
  9. 9. Counterknowledge • Rather than denouncing expertise altogether, contributors engage in creating counterknowledge:  “Surface stations ‘observe’ more warming than in the troposphere, several times more in fact. According to radio sensors, for almost 60 years the troposphere didn’t warm at all even though CO2 levels increased. Thus, the anthropogenic global warming theory remains a theory” (Hommaforum user, 31 May 2016)  “Intelligence testing is a fully neutral and objective yardstick for filtering those who attempt to enter the country. We can’t read their thoughts, but we can measure their brain capacity. And it only takes ten minutes” (Hommaforum, 9 Jan 2016)
  10. 10. Conspiracism • Excessive eagerness for ‘proof’ produces conspiracism, seeing agency behind events:  “Multiculturalism is mostly advanced by cynical old men with their own selfish interests and for that the softness of women is an apt tool. Women buy the media sob stories about dead kids in the Mediterranean” (Hommaforum user, 4 May 2016)  “The New World Order championed by the American billionaire David Rockefeller and the Bilderberg Group [...] is coming [...] The Muslim conquest of Europe is a prologue for the destruction of Europeans” (WTF Media 21 Mar 2016)
  11. 11. Conclusions • Rather than denouncing expertise, replacing it with folk wisdom, contributors denounce particular experts • They create counterknowledge, alternative knowledge systems with alt. authorities which support their politics with a strong empiricist-positivist-rationalist bent • Often takes the form of conspiracism • Rather than believe the ‘post-truth’ thesis, we should study different modes of epistemic opposition and alternative knowledge  Is counterknowledge a strategy of the radical right while populism goes together with ‘folk wisdom’?
  12. 12. Literature Aupers, Stef. 2012. “‘Trust No One’: Modernization, Paranoia and Conspiracy Culture.” European J. of Communication. Bail, C. A. 2014. “The cultural environment: Measuring culture with big data.” Theory and Society. Bale, Jeffrey M. 2007. “Political Paranoia v. Political Realism: on Distinguishing Between Bogus Conspiracy Theories and Genuine Conspiratorial Politics.” Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45–60. DiMaggio, Nag & Blei. 2013. “Exploiting Affinities between Topic Modeling and the Sociological Perspective on Culture.” Poetics. Evans, M. S. 2014. “A Computational Approach to Qualitative Analysis in Large Textual Datasets.” PLoS ONE. Fenster, Mark. 2008. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. University of Minnesota Press. Gosa, Travis L. 2011. “Counterknowledge, Racial Paranoia, and the Cultic Milieu: Decoding Hip Hop Conspiracy Theory.” Poetics. Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press. Hawkins, Kirk. 2010. Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge University Press. Hofstadter, Richard. 1962. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books. Hofstadter, Richard. 2008[1964]. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. 1st Vint. New York: Vintage Books. Kahan, Dan M. 2010. “Fixing the Communications Failure.” Nature 463 (7279). Kahan, Dan M., Donald Braman, Geoffrey L. Cohen, John Gastil, and Paul Slovic. 2010. “Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition.” Law and Human Behavior 34 (6): 501–16. Kahan, Dan M., H. Jenkins-Smith, and D. Braman. 2011. “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus.” Journal of Risk Research. Keeley, Brian L. 1999. “Of Conspiracy Theories.” The Journal of Philosophy 96 (3): 109–26. Knight, Peter. 2000. “ILOVEYOU: Viruses, Paranoia, and the Environment of Risk.” The Sociological Review 48 (S2): 17–30. Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012a). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106–131. Lewandowsky, Stephan, Klaus Oberauer, and Gilles Gignac. 2012. “NASA Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science.” Psychological Science. McCallum, A. 2002. “MALLET: A Machine Learning for Language Toolkit.” Nyhan, B., and J. Reifler. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32 (2). Oliver, J. Eric, and Wendy M. Rahn. 2016. “Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election.” Annals of the AAPSS. Saurette, Paul, and Shane Gunster. 2011. “Ears Wide Shut: Epistemological Populism, Argutainment and Canadian Conservative Talk Radio.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 44 (1). van Dijk, Teun A. 2014. Discourse and Knowledge. A Sociocognitive Approach. Cambridge University Press. Wodak, Ruth. 2015. The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: SAGE.