Authoritarians’ narratives can dominate how debates over the rule of law are framed. Can new technology help democrats fight back?

Over recent years, populist narratives fuelling resentment and public distrust in democratic institutions have come to dominate many public policy debates. These narratives often frame political debates to populists’ advantage.

It would be too simple, however, to attribute their success merely to the emotional appeal of populist politics.  

A fundamental cause is that the technology and economics of media distribution has changed. The technology has allowed everyone with a large following to in effect become a direct broadcaster. Instead of being mediated by an editorial class committed to upholding certain principles of public discourse, political messages are now disseminated directly through social media, highly partisan websites and clickbait media that prioritise popularity over accuracy and reasoned public debate.

Economic changes in media funding have intensified the effects of this change. The lion’s share of advertising revenue used to go directly to news organisations. It has now been captured by large ad platforms like Facebook and Google.

This technological shift has made it much harder to hold leaders accountable. Less revenue means news organisations are able to employ fewer staff, who have less time to investigate more output. Their ability to critically question narratives has consequently suffered.

A highly relevant example is of this can be seen in the recent ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal. On 7 October, its judges, most of whom were appointed by the ruling populist Law and Justice party, ruled that the country’s constitution is incompatible with Article 1 and 19 of EU law. According to the ruling, “The effort by the Court of Justice of the European Union to interfere in the Polish justice system violates the principle of rule of law, the principle of the primacy of the Polish constitution as well as the principle of retaining sovereignty in the process of European integration” 

Polish Prime Minister Matteusz Morawiecki claims that this is a matter of sovereignty and protecting the Polish people from undue European control. Supporters of the rule of law reject this, arguing that this recent development constitutes the most serious attack on the rule of law in Poland, by a government that has been doing so since 2015. For instance, Laurent Pech argues that it constitutes an attempt to push Poland out of the EU through legal trickery, against the wishes of its people. 

Caught between these two narratives, the media’s first reaction is often to try and split the difference. The result is that the repeated assaults on the Polish judiciary, media and civil liberties were initially framed by news outlets such as the Guardian as “controversial judicial reforms” and Deutsche Welle  as a ”controversial rule of law dispute”, whilst the Financial Times described earlier infringements on media freedom as “divisive”.

It took them time to formulate an accurate response at a critical distance from Polish government propaganda. On 24 October, more than two weeks since the Constitutional Tribunal announced its ruling, the editorial board of the Financial Times argued that it is clear that the Polish case was not a matter of sovereignty versus EU law, but a government attempt at escaping “any limits the law places on what it can do”. By this time, the Polish government’s narrative of a power struggle between nationalists and supporters of the European project had become established.

One of the reasons this occurred is that conventional research tools have not caught up with the technological change in media distribution. Sifting through what the RAND corporation has called “the firehose of falsehood” still takes too long. Hard-pressed writers and sub-editors working to short deadlines, use terms like “controversial” and “divisive” and move on to their next story.

One of the main uses of our Article7 platform is to speed this sifting up. Our system records verified political content, and uses semantic search to help the media find the information it holds faster. 

We want to make it easier for journalists to quickly get up to speed on the context around a story, and avoid being forced, due to pressure of time, to reiterate the simple narratives populists would like so see repeated.

We have become used to technology undermining the fabric of democracy, but it can be used to strengthen it as well.

Emelie Poignant Khafagi is an analyst at Article7