Education is the only antidote to credulity, fake news and right-wing populism

    Education is the only antidote to credulity, fake news and right-wing populism

    Wednesday, 25 September 2019
    On Thursday 12 July 2018, the day after President Trump visited the UK, thousands took to the streets of London in protest against Trump and his administration's threat to democracy. Credit: Alisdare Hickson/ Flickr.

    “The two parties that divide the state, the conservation party and the innovation party, are very old, and they have disputed possession of the world since it was made” – Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

    Today, democracies as different as the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Israel, Colombia, Italy and Austria (until recently) are governed by leaders and political parties of the most radical side of the party “of the conservation”.

    And in other democracies such as France, Germany, Holland and Sweden, although not in power, the conservation parties have significantly grown in popularity in recent years. The main problem with these movements is they show unequivocal antidemocratic traits, and a large part of their policies are cures that become worse than the disease.

    Given the patchwork of cultures and individual junctures in each of these countries, it is not easy to find across the board features.

    However, the following is a list of some of the most recurrent traits: defence of traditional religious values (regardless of the religion), stoking the politics of division, hostility or blunt repression of the free media, distrust of international or multilateral institutions, and fake news at the heart of their success. 

    Fake news

    This last point is fundamental to understand the core of a far larger group of followers of these movements: the credulous.

    Researchers who have analysed human political thinking have found that people inclined towards conservative positions are more susceptible to messages of threat and danger. And it is right here that the creators of “fake news” have aimed.

    Brexit supporters believed when they were told that Turkey was about to be admitted to the EU and millions of Turks would emigrate en masse to the UK.

    Trump’s followers are convinced that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists.

    Bolsonaro’s supporters bought that the “School without Homophobia”, an initiative of the previous government, was actually a “gay kit” to encourage homosexuality and promiscuity.

    And the followers of former President Uribe in Colombia, trusted his rhetoric that signing the peace agreement with the FARC would be akin to rendering the country helpless to the guerrillas.

    Professor Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago is one of the foremost researchers who has studied why people believe in conspiracy theories.

    Oliver distinguishes between two types of personalities, the rational and the intuitive. According to the results of his studies, few people are 100% rational and few are 100% intuitive. Most of us lie somewhere in between.

    Rational thinking is more related to logic, in other words, the processing and analysis of information, whereas intuitive thinking is more susceptible to emotions and to what Oliver calls “magical thinking” or, the supernatural. Since intuitive or magical thinking is not supported by any evidence, it’s not refutable with data. As a result, the more inclined an individual is towards the intuitive side, the less responsive he or she is to facts or reason.

    The growth of intuitive thinking

    Oliver believes that the takeover of the Republican party by Trumpism is the result of a growing transformation of the conservative bases towards intuitive thinking. He explains the latter as a response to the advance of progressive policies, beginning with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and continuing with the decriminalisation of abortion, the struggle for gender equality and the rights of the LGBT community and so forth.

    Oliver is clear in pointing out that while the tendency towards intuitive thinking is heavily concentrated on the right, the left is not immune to it. As an example, he points at the “anti-vaccination” movement, where individuals of progressive political inclination abound.

    Another part of the puzzle that helps explain how false facts become entrenched, come from psychological studies which have discovered that once we form ourselves an idea, the brain is designed for it to persevere.

    The phenomenon is related to the hyper sociability of our species. Reason developed not to allow us to solve logical problems, but to solve the problems we encounter because of living in collaborative groups. In other words, psychologists say that we are predisposed to give more importance to belonging to a group than to defend what may constitute the truth. 

    I believe the worldwide success of these far-right political ideas can be explained under the same narrative. An increase in intuitive thinking (hence in credulousness) of the segment of the population of conservative political inclination.

    The latter being magnified by the irruption in daily life of social media, which by design exploits our necessity to feel part of a group. Thus, the emergence of a segment of the population immune to reality. 

    The other pillar of these movements are the Cynics. Those who generate or finance the spreading of fake news themselves, and those who although not involved in this process, recognise these as false, but still defend them because they gain something from it (mainly economic and/or political power).

    Examples of cynics can be found, for example, in the US, where the many Republican legislators who openly disqualified Trump during the campaign today act as his staunchest defenders.

    In Austria, the leader of the far-right nationalist party that was filmed offering a supposed Russian oligarch lucrative public contracts in exchange for financing his campaign.

    In Colombia, the campaign director for the “No” in the referendum about the peace agreement confessing that the success of his campaign was to disregard the content of the agreements and focus on fueling outrage.

    Or, Netanyahu in Israel negotiating with the Ultra-Orthodox party his immunity against accusations of corruption in exchange for maintaining their privileges, which most Israelis reject.

    Between the credulous and the cynics, democracies around the world face an existential threat posed by political parties and leaders that undermine the progress of humanity. How to beat them?

    There is, of course, no single solution to such a complex problem. The only proven antidote against credulity is education. Counterintuitively, countries like France, Germany, Holland or Sweden are examples of this. Even if the popularity of far-right movements significantly increased there in the last decade, they have also been shown to reach a ceiling.

    Their citizens are not only better at judging the policies proposed, but also less easily fooled by fake news. As the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa recently said in a literature festival, “books generate citizens with a critical spirit, and democracy cannot survive without a critical spirit.”

    David Abuchar Luna