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Why is fake news successful?

Talking to each other and telling stories is a primal need of humanity, because it awakens feelings in us – both positive as well as negative. Right-wing populism exploits this for its purposes. A symposium at Kiel University explored how narratives in politics also operate through feelings.

Boat with refugees
© picture alliance/Zihri Maulana

It's those pictures of overcrowded refugee boats, or a little boy lying dead on the beach. Time and again there are victims of flight and displacement who have not managed to reach the safe shore across the Mediterranean. "These images, and the stories behind them, trigger emotions such as grief, sympathy and compassion in most people," explained political scientists Nina Elena Eggers and Dr Brigitte Bargetz, who research topics such as the narratives and emotions in politics at the Institute of Social Sciences at the CAU, in the Department of Political Science. "However, right-wing populists have managed to continue this story from their perspective in a completely different way, and thus also reverse people's empathy for the refugees’ situation," said Eggers. “All of a sudden, we shouldn’t feel sympathy because once the refugees get to Germany, they apparently become criminals and ‘knife-wielding assailants’. In the narrative of the right, the victim quickly becomes a potential perpetrator by putting events in a completely different context and newly linking them both causally and temporally," explained the graduate political scientist. It is a typical approach in populism to use certain stories and the associated emotions in a targeted manner to raise fears about migrants. This form of politics and its effects were the subject of the digital symposium "Affective narratives of right-wing populism", which the political scientists organised in June and July. The term 'affective narratives' describes the connection between the storytelling and feelings.

Storytelling is a universal basic need for humans, stretching back to distant times, when people listened to the stories of their ancestors around the bonfire. At a time when few people could read and write, this was the only way to preserve and pass on their culture and history. And political collectives, in particular, are founded on shared narratives such as national myths.

It is this particular combination of stories, memories and feelings that makes the narratives a key element of politics, especially right-wing politics.

Brigitte Bargetz

"But stories also always have something to do with emotions," explained Bargetz. Old stories often evoke nostalgic and very subjective memories of past times, "when everything seemed much simpler and better, and communal life was still organic and intact," added Eggers. Current narratives, especially those of the right-wing scene, link their stories to the emotions that currently move people. In coronavirus times, the feelings of fear, anger, resignation, impotence or dissatisfaction are directed at enemy stereotypes such as ‘established politics’ or ‘the others’, which they stylise as threats.

"It is this particular combination of stories, memories and feelings that makes the narratives a key element of politics, especially right-wing politics," said Bargetz. Through narratives, political experiences are processed, feelings are sorted, moods are heightened, certain relationships are made visible and legitimised. This is particularly evident in the current rise of right-wing populism, according to Bargetz. For example, when Björn Höcke (AfD) enthuses cheering crowds with a tale of reawakening masculinity and national combat willingness, or when Donald Trump tells a story of former American president and slave owner Andrew Jackson as a generous peacemaker, becoming angry in the face of the American Civil War.

"These stories offer strong characters to identify with and opportunities for psychological projection, they depict a heroic image or a battle of ‘good against evil’, make an issue of ‘us against them’. Through the strong emotions that the narratives trigger, people feel that their fears are recognised and understood," said Eggers, and continued: "Populists also try to convey such a sense of belonging when they proclaim ‘we are the people’, but they only really mean certain people, namely white and mostly males, while at the same time engaging in ostracism and smear campaigns."

The problem is that the narratives are often not questioned, but instead the ‘alternative truths’ are accepted. "Education using factual arguments cannot always help, because the facts must also be perceived as true," said Eggers. And Bargetz added: "Political education must also be thought of in affective terms." The other possibilities for dealing with fake news or populist narratives of the right were discussed at the symposium.

Author: Jennifer Ruske

More information:
www.politik.uni-kiel.de/de/professuren/PolTheo