The Information War. Misinformation as a Resource for Political Mobilization

– This blog post was first published on the website of the IASS Potsdam

“Stop the steal!”, “Plandemic!”, “Climate hoax” – these three examples are representative of an ominous shift in contemporary politics that has seen misinformation emerge as a key resource for political mobilization. Verifiably false information, held by a group to be valid, has become a linchpin of political debate. Whatever the issue at hand, the strategy is always the same: reliable knowledge is called into question and relativized by the deployment of competing and contrasting narratives. Challenges to the validity of these are subsequently branded as attacks on the freedom of opinion and proof of a “dictatorship of opinion”. Combining social media activism with street protests, this strategy has gained considerable momentum in the last years and an adequate response is yet to be developed.

In the United States the narrative of a ‘stolen’ election led to not just the questioning of democratic processes but their violent disruption. More than half of Republican voters believed that Trump, rather than Biden, had won the election, or at least doubted the official results. Trump and his supporters fuelled this uncertainty with a steady stream of anecdotes of alleged election fraud. And while carefully fact-checking revealed their inaccuracy, Trump’s followers were not to be dissuaded. This assault on democratic election procedures, culminating in the deadly attack on the Capitol, the U.S. has seen at first-hand just how corrosive misinformation can be when it becomes a core aspect of a political movement’s identity.

In the USA, attitudes towards the climate crisis and the use of face masks to protect against the coronavirus are also divided along party lines. In Germany, such partisan bias in the treatment of knowledge remains rare. But tentative attempts were made to mobilize climate change scepticism for political gains and projects like, which tackles climate change denialism head-on with scientific evidence, emerged in response. There is no doubt however that misinformation about the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have become a resource for political mobilization over the last year especially (Radtke et al. (2020). A network of actors who wish to expose the climate crisis as a delusion, and who question the scientific consensus of man-made global heating by highlighting the views of contrarian scientists, is fuelling political initiatives in this country and acting in concert with the right-wing populist political party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD is also seeking to position itself as the political representative of the “Querdenken” protest movement. The campaign against measures to combat the pandemic has revealed the widespread extent of misconceptions about vaccines and mask effectiveness across political camps. The idea of a “plandemic” – i.e., a staged crisis with the covert aim of restricting democratic freedoms – has politicized very different groups and sown radical doubt about our democratic processes and institutions.

A new media constellation

This development is rooted in a new socio-technological constellation in which social media have fundamentally changed how we find and evaluate knowledge. At an early stage in this development, communication experts analyzed the emergence of self-affirming sub-publics on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, with far-reaching consequences for democratic discourse. Communication within closed groups and the ‘curation’ of vivisble content by profit-driven algorithms has opened up new possibilities for marginalized groups: enabling individuals to forge connections across great distances and share their knowledge and experiences. But it has also facilitated the formation of hate groups as well as groups that create and spread misinformation. In these new online communities, knowledge becomes truth through mutual assurance. The selection and discussion of news items and other sources of knowledge within these spaces leads within a short period of time to the emergence of collective beliefs that can be mobilized for political aims. In short, these beliefs confirm affiliation and are linked to demands that translate into collective action.

Epistemic resistance

Rumours, half-truths, and misinformation have always been important factors in political debates. But today, with misinformation reinforcing political identities and driving street protests, it has become a crucial building block for communities and a driver of action. To share this knowledge is to belong, making protests and rallies the real-world expression of communities that were created online. Carolin Amlinger (2020) has referred to this as practice as “epistemic resistance.” Adherents to these beliefs see themselves as combatants in a war over suppressed information and read every contradiction as a sign of totalitarianism, often equating these with National Socialism or the SED regime. This narrative is a common thread in the wave of racist protests that unfolded under the PEGIDA banner from 2014 onwards as well as the protests that have accompanied the measures to keep the pandemic at bay. As with the Pegida protests, today’s “Querdenken” protests display an affinity for conspiracy thinking. Many of those who joined the PEGIDA protests were fearful of a “Great Replacement” in which complicit elites were behind the immigration of hundreds of thousands of refugees; similarly, some Querdenker believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a ploy by Bill Gates to gain control over humankind by secretly implanting microchips in people using the coronavirus vaccine. Misinformation and misconceptions can go hand in hand with conspiracy beliefs, but this isn’t always the case. This poses a new problem: Opposition to efforts to protect the climate and protests against pandemic restrictions are informed by a cocktail of misinformation, disinformation, verifiably false knowledge and skepticism. Not everyone who questions the threat posed by climate change also doubts the science behind it. And not every Querdenken protestor doubts the existence of the pandemic. But the perception of this group en masse and their labelling as “climate deniers” or “covidiots” leads them to close ranks and is more likely to reinforce conspiratorial thinking. As a consequence, protagonists soon identify professional journalism as part of the problem and a tool of sinister elites. The shared experience of protest strengthens communities that have been created online, with policing and counter-protests perceived as a form of affirmation by participants. This wagon train mentality reinforces protagonists’ self-image as resistance fighters and legitimises the use of violence against police, journalists and counter-demonstrators as a reaction to attacks from outsiders, in particular in the context of protests against pandemic measures. The “Querdenken” milieu has undergone a rapid process of radicalization. Fantasies of punishing or killing police, journalists and counter-demonstrators were shared on Telegram and in Facebook messages very early on. By now, such attacks have become a regular occurence at the movement’s larger demonstrations. Epistemic resistance is not only an expression of a general distrust of democratic institutions as a whole, it’s also a resource for the legitimation of action beyond the scope of the democratic rules of the game.

What can and should we do?

Anyone interested in furthering democratic discourse faces a dilemma when it comes to misinformation and its mobilization. On the one hand, the freedom of expression extends to even abstruse ideas and democracy thrives on dissent and criticism of the powerful. However, those who claim that the Federal Republic has become a dictatorship and rant about putting virologists on trial at popular tribunals have already stepped beyond the bounds of democratic discourse. So, what can be done?

One important step is to work on asserting boundaries and staking out the limits of democratic discourse. When protestors at “Querdenken” demonstrations compare themselves with the Jews persecuted and murdered under the Nazi regime, this trivialization should be clearly identified as secondary anti-Semitism. When climate change sceptics misrepresent scientific findings, it is important that we do not let their statements stand as simply “controversial opinions.” At the same time, we must ensure that the transgressions of individuals are not attributed to entire groups. However, when violent rhetoric and conspiracy narratives take centre-stage at demonstrations, other participants who fail to distance themselves create a social resonance space for anti-democratic rhetoric.

Journalists and civil society initiatives that have taken on the task of exposing misinformation through fact-checking create important resources for societal debate. But here too, however, the problem of closed communication spaces looms large: fact-checking services are less likely to reach those who identify as members of a resistance movement and their output does not spread with the same speed as misinformation.

More broadly, we must all take a more responsible attitude to knowledge. It is important to resist the tendency to selectively acquire knowledge that merely reflects our established beliefs. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that science is always a work in process and is often enough contradictory. Beyond this, we should consciously consider how knowledge is produced, disseminated and validated and reflect on what sociologist Ortwin Renn has referred to as our “felt knowledge” (Renn 2019). Only when the boundaries of knowledge and science are more clearly defined, and when political and moral conclusions are transparently separated from the two, will we be able to find common ground for democratic debate.

Amlinger, Carolin. „Über das Querdenken. Der epistemische Widerstand der Corona-Proteste“. Zeitschrift für Fantastikforschung 8, Nr. 1 (2020): 20–26.

Radtke, Jörg, Emily Drewing, Jenny Zorn, und Miranda Schreurs. „Doubt Every Crisis! Klimawandelleugnung in Zeiten Der Pandemie“. Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 33, Nr. 4 (2020): 815–28.

Renn, Ortwin. Gefühlte Wahrheiten: Orientierung in Zeiten postfaktischer Verunsicherung. 2. Auflage, Revidierte Ausgabe. Leverkusen: Verlag Barbara Budrich 2019.