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Westminster Forum, Level 5, 32-38 Wells Street, University of Westminster, W1T 3UW

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Democracy in a Post-Truth Age


‘Why is everything taken at face value? … You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.’ (Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway (Blake 2017)

Post-truth: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ (OED)

Anxieties about the susceptibility of ordinary people to appeals to emotion and misinformation have been central to critiques of democracy from Plato to Walter Lippmann to the present day. And democratic theorists have long harboured anxieties about the dangers of behaviourist and instrumental approaches to politics, in which professional techniques of opinion management and the incentive structures of commercial media would narrow the space for meaningful public deliberation (Habermas 1962). Yet today such fears and anxieties are seem heightened and bound up with digital technologies. Historian Daniel Rodgers articulates a widespread concern: 'in this reconstitution of truths as market commodities, the invisible hand working to sort things out is nowhere to be found. There is no dialogue. There is no discourse. There is no weighing of competing hypotheses. Truths slide past one another without contact points, headed for their designated purchasers.’ It is widely thought, by both its advocates and its critics, that populist politics is favoured by the affordances of digital technologies - ranging from data mining and microtargeting, the dissemination of propaganda and ‘fake news’, the rise of 'echo chambers', and the ‘online disinhibition effect’. There is good reason to take these claims of a connection between digital technologies and populist politics with a pinch of salt. There are plenty of other worthy candidates for explaining recent political events. We should also be wary of technological hype. Each modern election is accompanied by breathless commentary on the techniques deployed by the winners. Yet there are reasons to be concerned about the quality of democratic politics in a ‘post-truth' age. We need in particular to ask whether the conceptual tools of democratic theory are up to the task of understanding and criticising the emerging networked public sphere.

In this workshop we will ask participants to reflect on the questions:

* What is old and what is new in post-truth politics?
* What does it change (if anything) about the way we study politics?
* And what can be done about it?

While resisting the technological hype and moral panic about ‘post-truth’ politics, this workshop aims to identify points of genuine novelty and concern, and frame a set of substantive research questions.

The workshop is a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, and the Antipolitics Specialist Group and Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group of the PSA. The event will be held at the Forum at CSD on June 8. It will run from 1pm - 5pm. The format will involve a series of presentations of short (5-10 page) discussion papers addressing these questions followed by open discussion with all participants.

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Westminster Forum, Level 5, 32-38 Wells Street, University of Westminster, W1T 3UW

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