Alternative narratives are raising questions the mainstream is not answering. How can we shape a way forward?
Trust in elites and institutions has been in decline for 20 years.
We see this in our own polling at Cast From Clay. When we ask citizens “who do you trust to come up with ideas to improve the country?”, the answer “people like me” always ranks first – with institutions lagging well behind (just 15% of Americans answer “think tanks”, for example).
The thing is, if we don’t trust institutions to govern on behalf of the people – to make decisions, to come up with laws, to enforce them – who will perform those essential functions? Who can we entrust?
This is particularly pertinent to our work as policy communicators. Evidence needs to be underpinned by trust in the messenger, and in the information environment more broadly. No matter the robustness of the methodology, the scale of the research, the accuracy of the analysis – if audiences don’t trust the messenger or the system, they will reject the message.
So if people no longer trust traditional institutions, what can they trust? Where do we go from here?
The story of ‘me’ is a story of fragmentation
This is where we find ourselves: in a world where you can find facts to support just about any argument, we resort to trusting our best judgements over external authority. We call this the Age of Instinct.
The challenge, obviously, is that my ‘people like me’ are different to someone else’s ‘people like me’. And in our fragmented information environment, this leaves those of us who believe in a pluralistic democratic society struggling to gain a foothold. The more the media fragments, the more people’s narratives can diverge. The end game is a total fracturing of the political and social fabric.
In the excellent podcast ‘The Coming Storm’, BBC journalist Gabriel Gatehouse explored how conspiracy theories like QAnon were able to gain such support, in spite of so many of its claims being verifiably untrue. In his conclusion, he reflected:
“At first, I thought the storming of the Capitol was the culmination of the turbulent Trump years. But now I think it wasn’t that at all. It was just the beginning. Powerful forces are tearing at the bond of our common understanding of the world. Reality itself is fragmenting. How long can this hold?”
The ‘powerful forces’ Gatehouse is talking about include: 1) the feeling of being ‘left-behind’ held by many in Western societies, 2) the human need for simple answers to complex problems (i.e. a conspiracy by the elite), and 3) the internet’s disruption of traditional information gatekeepers.
One democracy, two realities
This fragmentation of society has been manifold, but let’s concern ourselves with two societal realities: we’ll call them ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’.
Each of the two realities has its own narrative, its own media, and its own set of facts. Both sides hold a deep distrust of one another. And both think they are defending democracy against the other.*
The ‘mainstream’ reality represents a continuation of the status quo. This narrative is generally embraced by traditional institutions, including the political elite, mainstream media, big business, think tanks and universities. People like us.
These institutions are bolstered by the generally urban, broadly liberal, and often white, sections of the population from which their employees are drawn.
The other ‘alternative’ reality holds that the political system has been taken over by a compact of urban liberal elites, who perpetuate their own agenda and act in their own interest. Our research last year (US, UK) showed that it was not so much the ideals of the institutions that people had lost faith in, so much as the institutions in practice.
Adherents to this ‘alternative’ narrative were until recently dismissively characterised by the mainstream as angry young men, racists, radicals or extremists. This isn’t accurate. It’s better thought of as a diverse groupset, also including people who feel left-behind by capitalism, many small-town and rural dwellers, social conservatives, the radical left, and libertarians.
The origins of this alternative narrative go back many decades – it has always existed to some extent – but it was supercharged by the 2007-08 financial crash, and the failure by political elites to make any significant change or hold anyone to account. For many years it was dismissed as a fringe element. In the US, a “basket of deplorables”. In the UK, “swivel-eyed loons”. Worldwide, “conspiracy theorists”.
The difference today is that this alternative narrative is no longer confined to the fringe. It was enough to carry Donald Trump to the US presidency. It was enough to shock the British mainstream over Brexit. It was enough to help Marine Le Pen run Emmanuel Macron close, twice. And it has been enough to challenge many other European countries, as well as the EU as a political construct.
It’s not about winning the narrative war
There seems to be a misconception among our urban, liberal(ish) community, that inevitably our narrative will win, because it is based on the foundations of fact, data, science, and the like. That, inevitably, the truth will emerge and sense will be restored.
The thing about narratives is: there is no such thing as one that is true or correct. They are all products of our imagination. And as long as enough people subscribe to a particular narrative, and as long as enough people trust its ‘apostles’, this narrative is enough to underpin a society regardless of its relationship to truth or reality… for a period of time at least.
In The Coming Storm, Gatehouse speaks to Ken Lanning. The former FBI agent spent 20 years in the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, and was one of the key responders in the 1980s to a spate of baseless allegations of satanic cults committing mass abuse around the country (the Satanic Panic). Lanning concludes:
“The fertile ground exists in the mind of man. The need to believe. The need for the simple answer to complex problems … Regardless of intelligence and education, and often despite common sense and evidence to the contrary, adults tend to believe what they want or need to believe. The greater the need, the greater the tendency.”
As long as we don’t address the drivers of why people want or need to believe in alternative narratives, our messages won’t be underpinned by trust.
The temptation at this point could be for experts to think: ‘Well, our audience of mainstream decision makers and policy makers still trust our evidence, so this split doesn’t really matter to us.’
This would be a mistake. First, because politicians – a key audience – are no longer mainly representatives of the mainstream. They are increasingly finding political capital in aligning with alternative narratives. (Whether they are leading this split or merely aligning themselves is another matter).
Secondly, because this is precisely how echo chambers get formed and reinforced. We are already seeing an ecosystem of ‘alternative experts’ and ‘alternative commentators’, armed with ‘alternative facts’, who speak to these alternative narratives and are quoted by alternative politicians.
The very coexistence of mainstream experts and alternative experts is a bad omen for the notion of expertise. We’re not talking here about diversity of opinion among experts, which is perfectly agreeable – even encouraged. We’re talking about having at least a shared ground on which to build arguments and a shared space for informed debate.
Reconciling where we are
Our research recommended that the first step is to accept the paradigm change of the new information environment for what it is. There is no going back. Let’s lean into this change.
Of the powerful forces that Gatehouse identifies, every one of them can be influenced:
1. The internet is here to stay.
We won’t roll it back – but we can try to shape the architecture of our information environment in a way which is conducive to informed democratic debate.
This requires action at national level, but also international level since the social media infrastructure largely exists in the US and is in the hands of private actors. What is the governance for this debate? Where does the buck stop?
2. All humans yearn for simple answers to complex problems.
We won’t change that – but we can try to reshape the nature of the debate. This involves promoting a renewed dialogue between experts and society. Not only presenting societal conversations in an inclusive and accessible way, but proactively reaching out beyond our bubbles.
Expertise should not happen behind-closed-doors. It is incumbent on the sector of expertise to be of the people, and to speak to personal experience across society.
3. Many are angry at feeling left-behind – and rightly.
This is a fact – but we can start to build bridges by recognising the people who are angry might have a right to feel aggrieved. Distrust in institutions is a reality. So is the feeling of political and economic powerlessness. Regardless of whether we agree with their answers, the point is that – for all our evidence – they are raising questions the mainstream is not answering.
It is easier to carry on as we were and hope someone else will fix it. The more we do this though, we become part of the problem. And that’s the problem with ‘people like us’. Instead, we can accept the change and try and shape a way forward together.
*(For an exploration of this, this Vice documentary is worth a watch: ‘How Propaganda Is Destroying Democracy’.)