Populists have chosen a bad time to wrest power. The main weapon at the disposal of the populist is the power to turn conjecture into fact. The danger is in the steady march of populists around the world turning conjecture to fact to law. The populist remains agile and formless, shaping opinion according to necessity, the only consideration being a deep rooted conservatismto appeal to the forgotten man and woman.
The appeal of fake news is in its reinforcement of beliefs – beliefs that are born out of disenfranchisement. The forgotten man and woman need to believe that they are the underdogs left behind by globalization, that perhaps wealth and power haven’t been distributed quite as equitably as they should have.
Indeed, the reinforcement of the belief that one is an underdog is an entirely competent backs to the wall management technique. The forgotten man and woman are under siege, their customs and traditions under attack from government and progressive forces. This management technique, however, has inherent limitations that are apparent when the siege ends, the usurper becomes the government and the underdog stops being the underdog.What will the underdog rally against, if the underdog becomes the one holding the keys to power?
At risk for conservatives is their own credibility in the long term. By allying themselves with populists, they have put their fates in the hands of a group of people that isso infatuated with power that it remains unconcerned about longevity and long term prospects. Any valid concerns the conservatives would want to raise are being totally drowned out by the insensate noises coming out of their own camps.
But populism is nothing new. The start of the last century saw various such movements, not always allied to conservatism. Communism (both the Russian and Chinese iterations) and Nazism were fairly progressive in naturein their objectives and policies – equal rights for women, state irreligion, equitable distribution of wealth.Both, however, caused misery unmatched in the history of humanity. The only credible examples of communism today are hardly communist success stories – both China and Vietnam have achieved success in spite of, and not because of communism.
Chinese success, however, depends on its tightly controlled propaganda machine, and its ability to control dissent, something, one would naturally think, is what the democratic populist is aiming for, even if in a more watered down state.
What the populist – and the rational conservative – would do well to realize is this: propaganda has failed, and is failing. The sole remaining state effecting propaganda at the scale of the Soviet Russia in its heyday is North Korea – and even in this case, the populace finds ways to access news, and real news at that. The difference in the relative situations between North Korean fake news and Western (and democratic) fake news is in that while the North Koreans struggle to find any news, the Western (and democratic) populace struggles to find independently verifiable news.
For the latter, however, there is no excuse. The spread of fake news is only because of a lack of effort and discernment. Plenty of journalists and media (the BBC, the Guardian and the Atlantic, to name just a few) are doing great work, at times at risk to their own lives and livelihoods. To share a link on social media without verifying the source and/or contents is absolutely criminal in today’s climate. To inculcate beliefs based on a 140 word tweet by a populist is doubly so. Do the likes of Facebook share responsibility? None whatsoever. It is up to the reader to make sure what he/she shares has basis in reality and fact.
In the same manner that propaganda has failed, so too will fake news. The reason for which will be the same as well: the natural human curiosity for truth, enlightenment and equity. It will be a bitter pill to swallow for the populist, but they themselves will be the key to their own downfall. The populist bubble will burst.
Avanish Rathi is an advocate practicing in New Delhi before the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court.