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"Trust Me! I'm Not an Expert!" The ABC of Post-Truth: Avoiding Risks, Biases, Clicks

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In a hyper-complex world, expertise is the new dogma. Since the Enlightenment, rationality was established as the status quo of knowledge production. Trump's election, Brexit, Russian propaganda, and populist movements across Europe challenge such a status quo under the banner of "'post-truth." These phenomena are simultaneously interpreted as symptoms of: the weakening of the rationalist model of knowledge acquisition in favour of emotional appeals; the disruption of traditional hierarchies within which the monopoly over the definition of truth was predictable; the breakdown of the liberal international order. Arguably, these domains tend to be investigated in distinct analytical silos. This risks downplaying their complementary character. To illustrate this complementarity, this paper attempts to systematize the existing literature on post-truth into three levels. The micro-level addresses how liberal elites treat non-experts as rational actors pondering policy alternatives. However, we tend to select information and process evidence in a way that actually reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. Populists' success stems from promoting causal explanations and instigating emotions that maximize people's cognitive ease. The meso-level examines the shift to the digital era and how news companies are losing their traditional role as truth-gatekeepers. Due to shrinking print-newspaper consumption, news companies become reliant on digital advertisement revenue and on social media for traffic. Yet, social media is designed in such a way as to exacerbate political polarization and the proliferation of misinformation. The macro-level concerns liberal experts' self-appointed role as indispensable "risk managers." From climate change, to financial crises, nuclear proliferation, global terrorism, and cyber warfare, modern society paradoxically tackles risks it has itself produced through its technological progress. If the negative externalities of liberal policies fail to become manageable, or are depicted as such, experts' credibility falters. Populists as "risk avoiders" vis-à-vis problems allegedly produced by liberal policies can thus sell themselves as the political panacea.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2018

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  • The St Antony's International Review (STAIR) is the only peer-reviewed journal of international affairs at the University of Oxford. Set up by graduate students of St Antony's College in 2005, the Review has carved out a distinctive niche as a cross-disciplinary outlet for research on the most pressing contemporary global issues, providing a forum in which emerging scholars can publish their work alongside established academics and policymakers. Past contributors include Robert O. Keohane, James N. Rosenau, and Alfred Stepan.
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