Challenging the ‘post truth’ world of illiberal democracy

Are universities and the media doing enough in the defence of knowledge when faced with the global rise of populism? This question has been debated at the third international Worldviews on Media and Higher Education Conference.

Staged at Canada’s University of Toronto, speakers asked how higher education and journalism can counter the claims of elitism made against these institutions; and how academics and journalists should communicate in what some consider a ‘post-truth’ world.

These were among the topics discussed on 12-14 June at the university’s Innis College, with University World News as one its sponsors. The conference provided a forum for a diverse mix of academics, higher education leaders, journalists, students and communications professionals from around the globe. They met and attend presentations, lectures and group discussions.

The opening keynote session brought together a panel of academics and journalists to discuss how higher education and the media can move forward in what they regarded as ‘illiberal democracies’, strongly influenced by populism.

Fittingly, it began with a videotaped talk from Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian academic, author and former Canadian Liberal Party leader, who is currently president and rector of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary.

Orbán coined ‘illiberal democracy’

As Ignatieff began his presentation, he pointed out that it was none other than the conservative, populist Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, who had coined the term ‘illiberal democracy’.

Orbán has been fiercely opposed to CEU’s academic freedom and over the course of the past two years has made it so difficult for the university to operate in Hungary that it is relocating most of its operations to a new campus in Vienna, Austria, beginning in September of this year.

“We’re in a very difficult position,” said Ignatieff, referring to both CEU and universities in general around the world. “I think we need to focus on the fact that authoritarian regimes are increasingly clamping down on the academic freedom [we] used to take for granted.”

In his estimation, universities have a lot in common with the media, the courts and independent regulatory agencies, all of which Ignatieff considers to be counter-majority institutions. That is, institutions whose roles in a democracy, whether illiberal or not, are essentially to oppose the tyranny of the majority.

“I think in a ‘post-truth’ world, universities – and the media – are just more important than ever before,” he told the audience. The job of educators, he added, “is to teach students that there is a difference between fantasies, rumours, a Tweet, a Facebook post and the stubborn reality of social life.”

The discipline of knowledge is an enormously important role in a free society, and it is because of this that Ignatieff believes academics and journalists are attacked as elitist. Yet he was adamant: “We should be proudly elitist in our defence of knowledge. We should fight back against these pressures.”

Increasingly hostile

But the difficulties in pushing back against populist forces in an illiberal democracy were made clear by the experiences of panellist Maria Ressa. The CEO and executive editor of Philippines-based online news website and a former CNN bureau chief in Manila, she has watched the government in her country become increasingly hostile to independent media outlets.

Since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016, the journalist and her website have been investigated and charged by the Philippine government 11 times. Ressa herself has been arrested twice in the past few months and told the audience that attending this Worldviews conference required first getting the permission of a court to leave her country.

“We’re the cautionary tale,” said Ressa. “The Philippines was a vibrant democracy, but since 2016 social media [has been] weaponised.”

From her perspective, this has led to social media being used by government supporters to insidiously manipulate and cripple democracy, with the distortion of facts a critical aspect of the process.

“If you cannot figure out what the facts are, and, whether the frontliners are journalists or academics, if we cannot agree on a fact, then you cannot have truth. If you can’t have truth, you can’t have trust. If you don’t have trust, then the voice with the loudest megaphone wins.”

Disinformation dissemination

However fellow panellist Janice Stein was quick to say that disinformation dissemination is nothing new. The Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management with the department of political science at the University of Toronto mentioned how printed broadsheets were used in England 150 years ago to the same effect as social media is today.

But whether broadsheets or Facebook, these tools are merely what she calls microphones. Stein said it’s more important to understand the underlying factors that have led to today’s ‘post-truth’ world, factors that go back decades.

“Underneath this spread of illiberal democracy are some really profound economic and political forces. They derive support from a wave of populism that has swept both the developed world and parts of Asia and Africa. So, we have to ask ourselves, why is it happening?” One answer for Stein is the growth of inequality that began in the 1970s and has, in her opinion, only accelerated.

“It’s not about microphones, it’s about fears that people have,” she said. “You know, right-wing populism is driven by middle-class people who are afraid of the future, who worry their kids will not do well, will not have jobs.”

And, she added, many of these same people believe universities and the media do not listen to their concerns, leading to the populist disparagement of elitism.

Listen to those you disagree with

Addressing the session’s theme, Stein said: “The way forward is to listen to people, [people] that you might disagree with profoundly. That you might label misogynist or racist. But get underneath it and say, ‘What are you worried about? What are you frightened of?’ Because if we don’t do that, we’re part of the problem.”

“This is such a depressing panel,” joked Brazilian academic Matias Spektor, provoking laughter from the crowd.

An associate professor and associate dean of the Fundação Getulio Vargas’s School of International Relations in São Paulo, Spektor then picked up on Stein’s thoughts: “I was thinking, ‘Haven’t we seen this before?’ We have. If you remember the mid-1960s, there was a global push against academic freedom and against universities.”

He then went on to list some of the places that were affected at that time, cities such as Berkeley, Chicago, London, Berlin, Paris, Prague, Beijing, Teheran, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City.

“What I think is most useful for a group like ours,” Spektor said, “Is that this is not a national problem. It is a global problem. And we need to treat it as a global process, as a new form of political violence that is transnational, that crosses borders.”

And he finished up by proposing the creation of a new way for those in higher education to better interact in this ‘post-truth’ world: “What we should do is try to work towards a global index of academic freedom. There is not one single global index of academic freedom, which means we do not have a common framework.”