Populist positions are gaining ever wider acceptance. Angela Merkel has spoken of a “post-fact age”. Today’s media echo chambers are partly to blame. We desperately need new narratives to escape them.
“We are two or three bad elections from…maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it.” Anne Applebaum, renowned Washington Post columnist, jolted her readers in March with this prophecy of doom. At that time, she was worried about the then pending Brexit referendum, November’s US presidential election and next year’s French presidential election. Whenever someone characterizes the outcome of a democratic election as good or bad, you have to respond with skepticism. But Applebaum draws attention to political conditions that are unquestionably cause for concern. In current debates, populist positions have been met with unexpectedly broad approval, and the established parties have been unable to respond with adequate communications strategies. The results can lead to election outcomes that even surprise pollsters (like in the UK). However, one particular development in all this is most troubling: When passions are stirred, facts have lost the ability to calm them.
How do we get information?
The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer released in January pointed to this new phenomenon of public opinion-making unfolding before us: There is a growing lack of trust between well-informed elites and broad sections of the population. Measured as trust in the government, the economy, non-governmental organizations and the media – as core social actors – there is a difference of 12 index points between information elites (60) and the wider population (48). It’s the broadest gap on record. The study also shows something else that’s rather interesting: The general population gets most of its information from three media sources, two of which lack traditional journalistic, professional or even academic quality standards: internet searches and social media.
Rational arguments (alone) cannot dispel this lack of trust. People are looking for direction, perspective and meaning in our increasingly complex and – in the words of Max Weber – “disenchanted” world. At the recent World Humanitarian Summit, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson made an important point when he spoke of the need for a “new narrative”. As the refugee crisis swells migration flows – one of the key issues populists are misusing – he believes we should refocus the story on the opportunities associated with migration.
Narratives for broad target groups
In the past, limited access to information was the primary cause of populism. Today, you can point to a dearth of relevant and convincing narratives. That’s what we’re lacking – the stories that create meaning, that do not omit uncomfortable truths and potential dangers, and that also provide a place for the available facts.
Narratives are essential for anyone wishing to reach large target audiences. The Reputation Institute’s latest research into the priorities companies should set to improve their reputations showed that the top spot was “to convey a narrative that spans markets and stakeholder groups”. These kinds of narratives – if done right – offer a way out of public debates distorted by prejudice and oversimplification. But they must be developed with effective communications management, and they must be accompanied by critical discourse in the form of quality journalism that not only documents opinion trends but leads and cites instructive debates between the narratives. To escape the media echo chambers, we need only to follow the words emblazoned over the emergency exit: the “enchantment of the world”.