Fritz Groothues

Democracy and Public Space

Debate about the European public sphere, the open space where news is disseminated and debated in the EU, can sometimes seem quite esoteric. Why then have academics and European politicians been so concerned about it? Because the concept is closely linked to some of the most burning questions about the EU, to do with democracy and legitimacy, national and European identity and the future of the EU as a political project.

There are different ways of looking at the European public sphere. First, are Europeans receiving enough information about the EU, its institutions and decisions? Or do the media in the 28 member countries relegate this kind of reporting to second place, if they bother to carry it at all? If European citizens are not adequately informed about these issues, then there is clearly a problem with the democratic process in the EU.

Second, do Europeans know enough about each other? The French historian Michelet asked: how can there be a functioning democracy, if we live in this terrible ignorance of each other? This applies as much to democracies in nation states as it does to the European Union. How do you expect France, Germany or the Netherlands to regard Eastern and Southern Europeans as their fellow citizens if they don’t know anything about them?


The rise of alternative facts

Although this discussion is important, it now risks being overturned by a much greater danger to democracy in Europe. Newly encouraged by the avalanche of alternative facts from the Trump camp, European politicians of the extreme right are spreading their version of an alternative public sphere, based on the values of identitarian nationalism: xenophobia and ethnic purity.

In this, their use of new technology enables them to reach much greater audiences than 20 years ago. The days in which their base was limited to the readership of obscure newspapers that could be bought at station kiosks are over: the internet and social media now enable the European alt-right to spread its message quickly and easily – nationally and, ironically, across borders.

Plans by Breitbart News to establish French and German news sites will further strengthen the extremist attacks on the European Union. The example of Breitbart reports on Muslims in Germany shows what is in store.

On 16th November 2016 Breitbart reported the views of Muslim migrants in Germany: apparently they loathe their hosts and think that Germany should be Islamised. The source is a single translator, but the attitudes are attributed to Muslim migrants generally.

On 3rd January 2017, Breitbart wrote about a ‘mob of more than a 1000 men, chanting Allahu Akhbar, attacking the police and setting Germany’s oldest church alight. The report claimed that it was based on a local newspaper article, but the paper in question said that Breitbart had distorted their piece and used it for fake news, hatred and propaganda. No church had been set alight, and the police concluded that the celebrations had been those of a normal New Year’s Eve. But the Austrian weekly ‘Wochenblick’ took up the misleading story, it was spread via Facebook and repeated in the press release of a German MP.


Alternative facts to suit your thinking

How can people believe this type of news? In his book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ the Nobel Prize winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers convincing explanations: we are willing to accept without questioning what fits into our mental models. Our mind ‘continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant’. And if certain types of behaviour have been mentioned again and again as typically Islamic, we use this association to arrive at our view of the world.


The next target: Europe

The nomination of former Breitbart chair Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist points to the power of these websites. They are not just one of the features of the extreme right, along with racism or nationalism, these creators of alternative news have become the engine of the extreme right’s march to electoral success.

Today the EU is at such a critical juncture that the European Commission should take this threat seriously. In an interview with the Financial Times, Andrus Ansip, the Commissioner for Digital Single Market warned that Facebook and other social media companies must take a stronger stance against fake news or face action from Brussels. National parliaments are also slowly realising the danger fake news poses for democracy.

But this alone will not be enough: the traditional media have to face up to their responsibility as providers of trustworthy news and challenge the sources of alternative facts. We, the consumers of news, need to become instinctive fact checkers from an early age, certainly when we begin to use the internet and social media; it is a skill that should be taught in schools. Fortunately the internet has not only made the rapid spreading of fake news much easier, it is also an excellent tool that everybody can use to find out if a news item is fake or not.

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