Brown University

“Alternative” Fact is Not a Problem for Democracy by Will Conard @ Brown University

The rise of populist candidates in global politics has been accompanied by a resurgence of mistrust toward news media from both liberal and conservative parties. Arguments on the necessity of accurate and apolitical reporting reached a new height in the United States following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.

On January 22, Kellyanne Conway, Presidential Counselor, suggested that the White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, had not “utter[ed] a provable falsehood” while estimating attendance at the inauguration but had instead proposed an “alternative fact.” This was met with uproar as the left rallied behind the notion that a fact – by definition – could not possibly be alternative. Many proclaimed that without factual, evidence-based news, democracy was in constant threat. However, democracy is not threatened by the rise of alternative facts. Liberalism is.

J.S. Mill, famed liberal 19th century philosopher, said in his central work, On Liberty, that a government with liberty requires protection from persecution and government interference, “individuality,” as well as general toleration. He was one of the earliest modern liberal philosophers and his definition of liberalism is one of the most flexible and reflective ones that exist.

Likewise, the most common definition of democracy, one without much nuance, is power of and by the people. This definition is important because regardless of the qualities of any regime in any nation, if it is a democracy, it can be broadly defined as a government “of and by the people.”

Many political philosophers have suggested other definitions for democracy; these often include assumptions of free and fair elections and free press. Some, like 20th century German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, would even argue that in order to prevent totalitarianism, democracies necessitate a pluralist society. Certainly democracy requires free and fair elections so as to accurately represent the people. Additionally a free press is necessary for a free democracy so the people can remain informed to the fullest of their ability; it has been noted by many that knowledge is power. The spreading of alternative facts could even be seen as a reflection of the success of the free press. Because, in many cases, the truth of reporting is subjective, it would be nearly impossible to systematically suppress untrue information. Therefore, if alternative fact is allowed to spread, it is evident that the media is not being suppressed. Likewise, if the government were to stifle “false” news, what would keep parties from suppressing news that they found politically troublesome?

In a study done by Oscar Barrera, Segei Guriev, Emeric Henry, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya in 2017, they ask the question: “How persuasive are ‘alternative facts’… in convincing voters,” specifically in reference to the French election and attempts at voter persuasion by the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.
Simply, the answer is… not a whole lot. But that does not entirely cover the extent of their research.

Their results show that alternative facts have the potential to manipulate the public although not always as much as expected. The timely relevance of a particular issue, the increased salience of that same topic, and a person’s current convictions also help to decide how a piece of information affects them. If a person believed, already, in the opinions of Marine Le Pen, they were more likely to be swayed by her alternative facts (these statements led to a 7% increase in likelihood of voting for MLP). A person with similar beliefs who was fed the actual facts of an issue was still more likely to vote for her (A 4% increase in likely voting was seen). This suggests an ultimately minimal effect – but an effect nonetheless. Additionally, the study finds that fact-checking provable falsehoods does not dramatically alter voting results. Ultimately, the study’s “results imply that providing the correct statistical evidence is not sufficient to correct the effect that dishonest politicians have on voters.”

This is not the affront to democracy that many may believe it to be. Candidates may use alternative facts to spin narratives that alter the perceptions of voters. However, because fact checking seems to have no effect on people’s convictions, it is clear that alternative facts are not the issue; it is the narratives themselves.

Further, the opinions of many populist candidates – especially those promoting alternative facts – are in many cases anti-minority. That is, the facts spread are often in opposition to a particular group that is oppressed or limited in population in a certain country. Therefore, the spreading of many of these “facts,” and certainly this is true in the case of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, can be viewed as against minorities. This would seem to display that alternative facts are being used for anti-pluralist reasons. However, according to the simplistic definition of democracy, pluralism is not a requirement of power of and by the people. Pluralism is being defined here, again broadly, as a system in which the general populous is diverse in many identifiable categories (Race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.). If a majority of a population vote in a way that is in opposition to the ideals and/or safety of a certain group, that vote is still the product of majority rule.

Additionally, A people’s homogeneity, has nothing to do with the extent to which they are politically represented. One could argue that some of the most successful democracies in the world have been comprised of a uniform citizenry – the United States being a clear exception (if you believe the US to hold a successful democracy). According to Freedom House, there are five nations with an aggregate score of 100 in their 2016 Freedom in the World rankings. Three of them are primarily white Scandinavian countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden), one of them is a similarly homogenous Iceland, and the fifth is San Marino – a country with a population of 30,000 that is 90% catholic and predominantly white-European. Pluralism is a requirement of modern liberalism, and it is modern liberal-democracy that is in jeopardy – not democracy itself.

One may view intentionally misleading the public to win votes as political interference – an important element of a Mill’s liberalism. Similarly, using deceptive “news” to empower a significant portion of the populace at the expense of a minority could be perceived as anti-individualistic and against toleration. These recent trends can thus be noted as opposed to liberalism. However, in no way do these alternative facts – in France, the US, or any other state – suppress the right of a nation to a free and unaltered press – a claim raised against them. It could instead be argued that denying the right to express alternative facts is a form of media suppression. US citizens have access to hundreds of factually accurate news sources and hundreds more inaccurate ones but it is a freedom that no source is limited in the scope and subject that they can report on (unless it can be defined as intentionally malicious and misleading slander). Alternative facts may act as a weapon for populist, anti-pluralist candidates but they don’t participate in corroding the power and free of will of the people. In essence, alternative facts are not anti-democratic; they’re anti-liberal.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, “Kellyanne Conway,” Creative Commons Zero license.


  1. Matthew Jarrell

    November 8, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Except that alternative fact becomes incredibly powerful and destructive in the hands of the government that wishes to do democracy harm. You’re right to point out that the mere presence of inaccuracies in widely consumed news media is not in and of itself a threat to the democratic order—but what you don’t mention is that narratives, which as you indicate are a product of facts, have a tremendous amount of impact and can be used to anti-democratic ends. Think about the “deep story” from rural Louisiana that we read about. It’s true that the story itself, of the oppressed white middle-aged working-class male, derives from the circumstances of life, but it also has to be mentioned that Donald Trump has taken advantage of that deep story, using it to legitimate all sorts of mistruths. That narrative, in the hands of Trump or some other populist authoritarian, becomes a deadly weapon. It can be operationalized to do away with pluralism and fundamentally change the nature of Dahl’s public contestation and inclusiveness.
    When we signal that it’s okay for anyone to make something up and call it a fact, we implicitly concede that the democratic system, which is constructed on the (admittedly far-fetched) notion that the best and most plausible ideas will win the day, is secondary to whatever cause or group of people or segment of society we deem more important than the rest. If a problem is framed with a fact, that we can see, that we can observe, it’s a problem that can be confronted. If it’s framed with a lie, that we can’t see or observe but is nonetheless repeated time and time again as dogma, it’s an eternal problem that no one can solve and it will be approached using whatever method makes people feel good at that particular moment. If this is how we choose to solve problems, what’s even the point of democracy?

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  3. Victor Brechenmacher

    November 21, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    As I understand your argument, alternative facts are not a threat to democracy per se, but rather to liberal, pluralist democracy. In support of this argument, you claim, among other things, that populists use alternative facts to push an anti-minority agenda, which is anti-pluralist and hence illiberal, but not undemocratic. You also point out that some of the world’s most successful democracies are socially and ethnically homogenous, so pluralism is not a prerequisite for democracy.
    This strikes me as an odd understanding of pluralism. What you define as pluralism amounts to social heterogeneity or diversity (ethnic diversity, for example). Pluralism, by contrast, is usually understood to mean something else. For Jan Werner Müller, it’s the “recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens.” Pluralism accepts and affirms the fact of diversity, including diversity of opinions, as a political given. Populists tend to be anti-pluralist in that they fail to do so. Instead, they see themselves as representing the ‘will of the people’ as an irreducible whole, not as representing one set of legitimate interests among many others.
    This has two implications. First, a society can be ethnically homogenous, like Norway, and still be pluralist. Second, when a politician is anti-pluralist, it’s not just liberal democracy that’s at stake, it’s democracy, full stop. After all, the Trump administration’s talk of “alternative facts”, along with its use of the label “fake news,” implies that viewpoints and facts that run counter to the administration’s narrative are by definition illegitimate and agenda-driven. This directly affects the news media’s ability to act as a credible source of information. If this ability is needed in a democracy, as you explicitly say is the case, this means that it’s democracy itself that’s in danger, not liberalism.

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