Democracy as an information system

by Henry Farrell on November 27, 2018

Democracy is an information system.

That’s the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States.

The answer revolves around the different ways autocracies and democracies work as information systems. We start by differentiating between two types of knowledge that societies use in their political systems. The first is common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is. People agree broadly on how their government works, even if they don’t like it. In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count­ — even if only roughly and imperfectly.

We contrast this with a very different form of knowledge that we call contested political knowledge,which is, broadly, things that people in society disagree about. Examples are easy to bring to mind: how much of a role the government should play in the economy, what the tax rules should be, what sorts of regulations are beneficial and what sorts are harmful, and so on.

This seems basic, but it gets interesting when we contrast both of these forms of knowledge across autocracies and democracies. These two forms of government have incompatible needs for common and contested political knowledge.

For example, democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems. Different political groups have different ideas of how to govern, and those groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems. When no-one knows who is going to be in charge after the next election, different parties and candidates will vie to persuade voters of the benefits of different policy proposals.

But in order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen. There also needs to be common knowledge of who the political actors are, what they and their parties stand for, and how they clash with each other. Furthermore, this knowledge is decentralized across a wide variety of actors­ — an essential element, since ordinary citizens play a significant role in political decision making.

Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies do not require common political knowledge about the efficacy and fairness of elections, and strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge. They actively suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings within their society, their levels of popular support, and how they might form coalitions with each other. On the other hand, they benefit from contested political knowledge about nongovernmental groups and actors in society. If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.

This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge. They are vulnerable to outside information that demonstrates that the government is manipulating common political knowledge to their own benefit. And they are vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge­ — uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions­ — into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize more easily, as well as tools that provide citizens with outside information and perspectives.

For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrian Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other. We have already seen that open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge. And much more recently, we have seen other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supported common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge.

In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

This framework not only helps us understand how different political systems are vulnerable and how they can be attacked, but also how to bolster security in democracies. First, we need to better defend the common political knowledge that democracies need to function. That is, we need to bolster public confidence in the institutions and systems that maintain a democracy. Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending. And finally, we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.

There’s a lot more in the paper.

[This short piece was co-authored with Bruce Schneier, and originally appeared at Lawfare.]



michael 11.27.18 at 1:55 pm

this line of analysis is premised on a host of unwarranted assumptions, the most obvious and fatal of which is that information is ontologically prior to disinformation, misinformation, distortions, noise, and the like. put simply, democracy (or any form of politics worthy of the name) is a contest over what should count as information. it is not, and cannot be, a system predicated on agreement which can then be disrupted. it is the disruption of agreement.


Thor Ribeiro 11.27.18 at 3:22 pm

This is a great model for understanding what is going on. Here in Brazil Bolsonaro followed that exact same playbook, poisoning the well of democracy:

-He started questioning the security of voting machines (which here are considered quite safe and managed by the judicial branch).

-He pointed to alleged bias in the main media outlets (surprisingly, as they are on the right. It was part of his putch on the mainstream right).

-He classified international organisations and NGOs such as the U.N. as “communists” trying to interfere with our sovereignty.

And indeed, it was only with the complacency and inaction of the establishment that he was allowed to win. The Judiciary refused to investigate illegal campaign contributions which funded his online attacks, the mainstream right parties capitulated quickly, etc.

Now it feels like there are a lot of people living in a parallel, paranoid reality where communists are omnipresent (communist = pedofile = internationalist). They are now poised for a hunt, starting with teachers and universities.

It’s hard not to despair.


Anarcissie 11.27.18 at 4:25 pm

The last paragraph sounds quite authoritarian. What does ‘bolster’ mean — spending money, calling the cops, expelling wrongthinkers? Which groups are ‘inside’ and which are ‘outside’? Who gets to say? Who gets to do the job? Why?


Murali 11.27.18 at 6:41 pm

If democracies are vulnerable to processes that turn common knowledge into contested knowledge, then a powerful critique of democracies is going to be that any society with roughly free speech is going to threaten democracy because of the burdens of judgment. If even if favourable social conditions, people are going to disagree about all sorts of stuff, then it is hard to see how there could be much of any common knowledge left. In modern conditions, the right form of government should be robust to loss of common knowledge. This could either be because it relies on very little common knowledge and the common knowledge it relies on is difficult to dislodge or people converge on supporting said system despite disagreeing on everything else.


Orange Watch 11.27.18 at 7:04 pm


The analysis is written from an information security perspective, so that strongly influences its tone. Information security takes for granted that there is an organization-internal actor responsible for assuring infosec, and that this actor will act according to an agreed-upon organizational agenda that has long-term continuity and which rightly resists outside influences. This works well from a corporate or bureaucratic perspective where there is a clear demarcation between internal and external agendas and actors, but you are correct in suggesting it has problematic aspects when addressing an entity whose ingroup and outgroup overlap, periodically change as the result of elections, and whose purpose and motivation are derived from perspectives that are far more majoritarian than consensus.

I haven’t had a chance to read the full article, and perhaps the split between the two categories of information can reasonably address the tension between them. I’m not fully optimistic, but perhaps.


Stephen 11.27.18 at 7:35 pm

A very intelligent and valuable analysis of a limited number of cases. Some problems, due to the analysis being restricted to the USA:

“common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is.” Near home, that has surely never applied to Northern Ireland. Given the democracy/autocracy dichotomy, does it follow that NI has always been an autocracy like Putin’s and earlier version of Russia? And is Scotland currently an autocracy?

Same argument, redoubled in spades, applies to Israel.

“If people disagree on the results of an election … then democracy suffers”. The disagreement about the validity of the Brexit vote might be relevant here.

“There also needs to be common knowledge of who the political actors are, what they and their parties stand for, and how they clash with each other.’ As for Brexit, I would be very grateful if someone could explain what the actors [I think, the right word] do in fact stand for. As far as I can make out the main beliefs of the leading actors are: T May, I ought to be Prime Minister, I would prefer Remain and will therefore, though nominally Leave, try to push through a deal which is essentially Remain, or even less desirable to Leavers. J Corbyn, I ought to be Prime Minister, I would prefer Leave and but will therefore not oppose Remain.

I may be wrong. Elucidation welcome.


WLGR 11.27.18 at 10:30 pm

I can’t emphasize strongly enough how much this account would benefit from an engagement with Philip Mirowski’s account of the relationship between neoliberalism and fake news. (A lecture version is here, and Mirowski’s lecture slides are here as a succinct 17-page PDF for anybody who wants the tl;dr version.)

At least by my reading of Mirowski, he’d probably zero in on a parallel between your account of democracy as an information system and the central Hayekian neoliberal doctrine of the market as an information processor, framing it as a sort of recapitulation of the traditional Lippmann/Dewey debate in interwar social science. Despite the modern technological gloss, you and Bruce seem to be staking out an extremely Deweyan take on the necessity of an informed citizenry, shared knowledge propagated through a centrally mediated education system, and so on, which in terms of information systems resembles something along the lines of a traditional single-stream algorithmic computer program. As Mirowski describes it, the neoliberal position departs in the opposite direction from Lippmann’s early pessimism about even the possibility of an informed citizenry, arriving at Hayek’s mature account of the market as a cognitive agent more akin to a distributed connectionist neural network, premised on the basic inability of individual nodes (people) to so much as begin to approach the level of understanding reached by the network (market) as a whole.

The upshot here is that it seems off base, maybe even dangerously so, to interpret “fake news” primarily as an outside foreign attack on the internally stable information system of US or any other Western democracy. In fact fake news is a near-perfect expression of neoliberal market epistemology, presaged not by geopolitical conspiracies against Western democracies from the halls of the Kremlin or some such (and besides, recall that the current institutional architecture of Russian politics was shaped in the 1990s under the extremely close guidance of advisors and investors from the US) but more so by neoliberal doctrines hatched from within the intellectual power centers of Western democracies themselves, like Ronald Coase’s attack on the BBC as exerting monopoly control over information, or George Stigler’s account of perfect competition premised on optimal levels of individual ignorance. As far as the neoliberals are concerned here, your Deweyan account of a common knowledge base broadly shared by the masses on an individual level is actually a dangerous totalitarian delusion, and no matter what one’s view of Lippmann/Dewey in theory, it seems safe to say that the neoliberals with their Lippmann-inspired praxis of agnotology and Straussian “double truth” are more representative of the present-day Western capitalist ruling elite than any honest-to-God Deweyans have been for a long time.


Donald 11.28.18 at 2:56 am

Maybe I misunderstand this, but if I understand correctly than I have never lived in a democracy. People in the US have lived in different epistemological universes for as long as I paid attention. I have had at least a few conservative friends all through my life and we strongly disagree on nearly every political issue and not just on the correct policies, but on many of the most basic facts.

I have a very conservative friend. I could go down a list of issues where we live in different universes, but it isn’t necessary since I assume most people know what the Fox News types believe, but here is one example. He told me recently that Trump saved us from the economic disaster left to him by Obama. It’s been like this with him since roughly 9/11, when he seemed to become an avid consumer of the vast rightwing media machine. The Russian contribution is a drop in the ocean of lies various Americans tell each other. I wouldn’t limit this to the far right, though I think they are the biggest producers of BS.

What do you do about this? The right and the left ( and various factions within each group) have disagreed about basic facts since forever. Even in the thread about trolling you will see some of the regulars here, all on the left though they disagree even about that, unable to agree about much of anything. Both sides are convinced the other side are trolls arguing in bad faith.


Anarcissie 11.28.18 at 2:58 am

Orange Watch 11.27.18 at 7:04 pm @ 5 —
My experience with the insides of corporations and bureaucracies has not been fundamentally different from what happens outside. To oversimplify: (good) knowledge is power. Therefore, it is to the interest of the powerful who wish to remain so to limit the good knowledge available to their underlings and competitors. Various means are employed towards these ends, such as secrecy, obfuscation, overt lying, misleading and misdirection, reframing, filtering, sequestration, and so forth. Most conscious people who have experienced corporate life will know from direct experience what I’m talking about. The world outside corporate bodies is less structured, but the same general dynamic takes place; thus we have the New York Times lying about Vietnam in the 1960s and lying about Iraq forty years later, while retaining (most of) its repute.

The reason ‘fake news’ (or neoliberal information, as above) has become a problem recently is that the Internet vastly lowered the cost of publication, thus destabilizing the channels of information which had hitherto been controlled by various established orders (‘democracy’), leading to a sort of information anarchy. However, this ‘anarchy’ actually has numerous centers of power which operate very much as the corporate bodies of old, except there are more of them, their existence and relations are more fluid, and we observe more factional struggle breaking out into the open. Rather than a supposed free marketplace of ideas, which would require equality, we have the sort of marketplace capitalist societies usually provide.


faustusnotes 11.28.18 at 4:37 am

The dangers of conservative attacks on basic institutions of democracy were being raised a long time ago, and it’s worth considering how long and persistent the project has been. In Australia (the case I’m most familiar with) the right-wing party (the Liberals) started seriously undermining basic institutions in the 1990s at least (some would say the 1970s). They attacked the High Court as much as they could get away with, and when in power attempted to corrupt and politicize the independent broadcaster, the military (using them for naked political gain as in the Tampa incident), museums of national importance, school curricula, university grant bodies, and so on. At the time people complained that the most long-term damage that the Howard govt would leave would be its poisoning of institutions. Probably the most egregious was the way they used personal enmities and connections to undermine rival political parties, including having one populist right-wing politician sent to jail in a case that was blatantly political and ultimately overturned on appeal. The same obviously was happening in other countries.

They didn’t do this because they had a long-term plan of destroying democracy, but for all their claims to be standing athwart history yelling stop, the conservative movement have zero respect for the political traditions of their home countries. They’ll tear it all down for an extra dollar, and then blame everyone else for the messy state of the ruins they leave behind. Trump, Brexit and all the rest of it are just the logical final consequence of their reckless, ignorant destructive politics. Now we have a whole generation of conservatives who came of age in this environment, and they really have no idea about the difference between what is common and what is contested political knowledge. To them there is no longer any knowledge (which is why they deny all science), only rhetoric. The only way to save our democracies is to drive these wreckers out of them.


musical mountaineer 11.28.18 at 6:41 am

“But in order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen.”

This is exactly where we attack. Destroy all common knowledge. Destroy all institutions.


MFB 11.28.18 at 7:11 am

I glanced at the article, but it was based on absurdly false claims about how the Russians supposedly manipulated elections throughout the Western world to accomplish things which the authors of the article don’t like. One should have no patience with such claptrap.

However, the actual issue is important. How can one possibly have a democracy when one cannot trust the information which is required in order to make informed public decisions? In other words, when the media cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and the politicians cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and the academics cannot be trusted to tell the truth, and when gigantic organisations exist to manipulate all the sources of information, how can any informed action be taken?

It really is a huge conundrum. I think that the problem with the post is that projecting the problem onto assumed-evil-foreigners, or onto assumed-evil-political-opponents, and pretending that it isn’t something that exists when such foreigners or such opponents are not involved, is a massively destructive exercise. It’s like saying that war crimes only exist for the enemy, and we must Support Our Troops.

And we certainly don’t need to “bolster public confidence in the institutions” if those institutions are actually the problem. What we need is to critique those institutions for their failings and support them when they do things which enable democracy rather than subverting democracy. The alternative is totalitarianism (uncritical support for official institutions regardless of their flaws is basically just that), and I’m a little worried that the authors of this post seem to lean in that political direction — which makes their claims to be serving democracy rather questionable.


SusanC 11.28.18 at 9:08 am

@5: The academic duscipline of computer security has a whole subdiscipline called “multilateralsecurity”, to do with what happens when the main problem is insiders fighting each other, rather than insides fighting a common external enemy.

I.e. The computer security community is well aware of its bias tiwards priorotizing outdider threats against insider threats, amd yes I can see the case that this is a case where insider threats matter.

E.g. Is the main problem with US elections Russian influence (outsider threat) or escalating hostility beween Epublican/Democrat factions?


Cian 11.28.18 at 1:32 pm

I’ve always found the basic assumption that democracy is about information rather weird and naive. Politics is about struggle between different groups in society, and how disagreements get worked out. Propaganda is simply a way in which particular coalitions try to broaden their appeal (and thus power) by trying to convince groups of society that despite all the evidence to the contrary, they really represent some interest that matters to them better than any other party.

The problem in the US isn’t that the Russians dropped a few hundred thou on Facebook ads – but that neither of the two ‘parties’ (in quotes because the US doesn’t have political parties in the sense that other countries do) represent the interests of the vast majority of it’s population, and have zero interest in doing so. Given that, the only option you have is to either suppress the vote, convince them the other party are an existential evil, or get them riled up about some other crap (immigrants, Russian hackers, China, whatever).

As for Bolsano, his attacks can be explained by two things. First of all that’s just who he is (see also UKIP or Boris Johnson in the UK), and two that in an election where the population have lost faith in all the political parties, attacking the system identifies you as the ‘Guy To Sort Things Out’. Trump is playing a similar role in the US. This is not a tactic that works if the system works for them. The problem in Brazil was that the right wing destroyed the existing system, the problem in the US is that the system hasn’t been working for most people for decades now.


LFC 11.28.18 at 2:59 pm


Did R. Coase propose the spreading of disinformation as a “remedy” for what he saw as the BBC’s “monopoly control” of information? If not, then what is the connection between market-oriented ideology and fake news? Did Coase, Hayek et al. think that economic markets worked better when consumers held beliefs that were objectively false?


Orange Watch 11.28.18 at 5:08 pm

Anarcissie 11.28.18 at 2:58 am @5:

My point was moreso about organizational assumptions about authority and the existence of an orthodox epistemology as expressed in OP line up well with corporate/bureaucratic/otherwise-centralized premises underpinning boilerplate information (and to be more blunt, network) security premises. It’s not to say that such organizations are radically different from other organizations (it’s humans everywhere), but it is to say that such organizations make different baseline assumptions about the identity and even existence of a definitive legitimate authority WRT their infosec. They may approach infosec in practice in ways almost indistinguishable from less hierarchical organizations, but from such a POV it’s less compelling to deem the overarching framework in OP as being unacceptably authoritarian because it syncs very cleanly with mainstream orthodox epistemological dynamics in information security.

(Or more succinctly yet more also completely, what SusanC@13 said.)


Alato 11.28.18 at 7:39 pm

I liked this post- the distinction seems useful in terms of why the same Voice of America sort of strategy is good for democracies and bad for autocracies, why the information strategies used to attack democracies are fundamentally different than those used against autocracies, and how each can be resisted.

I am confused by the comments- I’m getting a lot of the same feel I do when I argue with conservatives about global warming: the arguments raised seem at best tangential to the main points, but are used to dismiss it without really considering it? I’d really appreciate Michael and WLGR restating their points, because the phrasing is currently impenetrable to me and I’d like to think that is my failure rather than theirs. (IE, the information is ontologically present prior to disinformation, because it is describing a non-abstract concrete system, and so a truth-value can be evaluated by reference to the thing itself rather than an ‘authorative’ account?)

@5, @3- I’m in agreement that the phrasing is a bit unfortunate, but the fundamental point seems robust to those concerns. Insider/outsider is (seems?) pretty clear based on the actors being subject to/not being subject to the laws of the system they are attempting to influence. You seem to be reading insider/outsider distinctions into what would just be the in-group? IE, the idea that the in-group/out-group can overlap and switch positions is not something I think works in this analysis; we may need to define terms that distinguish between outsiders and out-of-power-but-insiders.

@7, it reads like you are more concerned about the slippery slope to information control than you are of the actual attacks that this is an attempt to categorize? I’m not sure… My counter-example would be the date of democratic elections: this is common political knowledge, correct? And we have seen a very large number of attempted subversions this past cycle, where the wrong date was publicized in an attempt to reduce turnout.

On re-read, I think your argument is in agreement with the original post, but emphasizes that the push towards destroying common knowledge is being driven by neoliberal power centers in the US rather than foreigners. Or do you have a point of disagreement with the thesis that I missed in the jargon?

It does seem like the diminishment of common political knowledge reduces the opportunity for groups not currently in power to gain it by means beyond bribery and coercion, while the diminishment of contested political knowledge reduces the opportunity for groups in power to act without constraint. Would those be valid inferences?


Alato 11.28.18 at 7:46 pm

@12, MFB, could you restate your point less abstractly? I’m trying to work through your reasoning using some piece of simple common political knowledge because as stated it feels like a motte-and-bailey type argument that can be used against most proposed changes… I’m thinking the date of elections, since there were efforts to move that into the contested category last go-round here in the US. Is there a reason to believe that media, politicians (as a whole), or academics would be better served if this was contested rather than common knowledge? Can the attempt to move this into the contested category be understood without understanding it as an attempt to remove power from citizens, in a democracy?


Anarcissie 11.29.18 at 3:44 am

Alato 11.28.18 at 7:39 pm @ 17 —
I took @1 to refer to the fact that facts have to be constructed out of phenomena, logic perhaps, social interactions, and other procedures — they are seldom handed to us in complete form by nature or the gods. And as they have to be constructed in our little monkey brains, they may well show up in imperfect form, being the result not necessarily of good perception but perhaps also error, illusion, delusion, compulsion, a desire to lie, social pressure, bad luck. So good information, bad information, and mixed information arise together; good information is not ontologically prior to bad information. Then in the authoritarian model, the authorities decide what is good, and in the market model, the information is passed around and eventually more people, or more influential people, ‘buy into’ the better information.

In regard to insider-outsider distinctions, let us assume that groups have boundaries, for example, ‘actors being subject to/not being subject to the laws of the system’. Within an inside set of any substantial size, there is likely to be a similar distinction between the members of the in-group, so that there is an in-group in-group and an in-group out-group. Just as there is a power and information boundary between the greater group and those outside, so there is a similar boundary inside the in-group. In fact we can expect the pattern to be recursive for quite a few levels if the basis group is large. And so those in the in-group in-group (and so on up the chain) have the same problem with the in-group out-group as the group as a whole has with the outside, and have to use similar although perhaps more sophisticated methods to sequester information and exert power.


Hidari 11.29.18 at 10:13 am

‘This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together.’

During the Cold War (and, arguably, now) the US’ aim was very openly and clearly to weaken ordinary Russians’ collective trust and systems that held their country together.

As @12 pointed out, the core assumptions of this paper are extraordinarily dangerous.

Obviously the paper doesn’t say so, but speaking personally, my faith in ‘the institutions and systems that hold “our” country together’ is close to zero. The inference that might be drawn from this (it’s not inevitable, but given the presuppositions of this paper, it seems reasonable) is that my own thoughts ‘may’ or ‘could have been’ or ‘might have been’ influenced by ‘Russian propaganda’ and I now have to refute that ‘charge’ before anyone listens to any substantive point that I might have to make.

It’s a fairly big leap from this to ‘Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party?’. But hardly an insurmountable leap.

In any case, it is by no means apparent to me that Trump’s America is by any objective measure more democratic than Putin’s Russia, so why do we assume that the anti-democratic influence flows ‘from’ the latter to the former?


Antonin 11.29.18 at 1:37 pm

“The Russians!1!!”

This will look completely bonkers in less than 10 years.


Antonin 11.29.18 at 2:16 pm

“The Russians!!1!”

This will sound bonkers in less than 10 years.


Ben Alpers 11.29.18 at 2:32 pm

I sense such slippage in the post between common knowledge as a fact (i.e. things that everyone actually agrees about) and common knowledge as an epistemic state (i.e. the belief that everyone else in a society shares one’s belief about something). Each of these things can pertain without the other. For knowledge to be contested does there need to be active disagreement about it, or is it enough for people merely to believe that there is such disagreement?

I’ve read the post, not the article, so perhaps this is clearer in the article.


WLGR 11.29.18 at 2:58 pm

LFC, I don’t feel like transcribing Coase’s entire argument from British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly, but in the bit Mirowski cites, Coase quotes a pro-BBC writer condemning “the dissemination of the shoddy, the vulgar and the sensational” by non-BBC media outlets and responds that “[this] argument—that certain demands are unworthy of being met—implies a philosophy which we now call totalitarian.” The basic underlying premise here, echoed in various forms by Hayek, Posner, and others, is that the market is both cognitively superior and ethically preferable to any individual human being at determining the optimal levels of knowledge and ignorance for any given actor in any given transaction, so people should disabuse themselves of the arrogance (“the fatal conceit,” as Hayek titled one of his later books) to second-guess the market’s ideal distribution of knowledge, just like they shouldn’t second-guess its ideal distribution of property either. Mirowski goes into detail, and cites others who go into greater detail still, about how the design of modern online social media platforms and (especially) targeted-advertising networks has been explicitly driven by this neoliberal imperative to place flows of information in the hands of market algorithms beyond individual human comprehension or control, and the modern explosion of fake news has far more to do with this than with some ragtag private troll farm in Petrograd that can’t hold a candle to the West’s equivalent online propaganda shops anyway.


WLGR 11.29.18 at 3:07 pm

Alato, I think MFB @ 12 is essentially correct, that Farrell and Schneier are completely out of line to postulate the US as an entity called a “democracy” with a universally shared knowledge base and set of ideological commitments. Nobody ever made my status as a political subject of the US conditional on any explicit belief on my part that US elections are free and fair or that US institutions have the best interests of their constituents at heart, and it seems that Deweyans like Farrell and Schneier are just assuming I accept these commitments on some level because it simplifies their methodological goal of modeling a country like the US as a fundamentally stable and unified political unit. If the term “democracy” (or “totalitarianism”) is to mean anything at all, I can hardly think of anything less democratic (or more totalitarian) than requiring me to accept those sorts of commitments as an inherent precondition for my exercise of political self-determination.

And yes, I do think there’s something deeply troubling and even proto-fascist in the tendency to blame a country’s internal problems (particularly when that country is a politically/economically dominant imperial power like the US) on nefarious foreign conspiracies disrupting what would otherwise be a stable unified polity. Not only is the way in which US liberals seem to have gone all-in on this logic in recent years proto-fascistic in general, but the specific signifiers being used w/r/t Russia (“disinformation,” “active measures,” etc.) have been borrowed directly from the far-right fringe of the so-called Third Red Scare in the early 1980s, a comparison made eloquently by Mark Ames with reference to the reactionary anticommunist Alabama Senator and former Vietnam POW Jeremiah Denton:

Everything they loathed about America, everything that was wrong with America, had to be the fault of a hostile alien culture. There was no other explanation for what happened in the 1970s. The America that Denton came home to in 1973 was under some kind of hostile power, an alien-controlled replica of the America he last saw in 1965. Popular morality had been turned on its head: Hollywood blockbusters with bare naked bodies and gutter language! Children against their parents! Homosexuals on waterskis! Sex and treason! Patriots were the enemy, while America-haters were heroes! Denton re-appeared like some reactionary Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep in the safe feather-bed world of J Edgar Hoover’s America — only to wake up eight years later on Bernadine Dohrn’s futon, soaked in Bill Ayers’ bodily fluids. For Denton, the post-60s cultural shock came on all at once — as sudden and as jarring as, well, the shock so many Blue State Americans experienced when Donald Trump won the election last November.

[…] Just as so many people today cannot accept the idea that Trumpism is Made In America—so Denton and his Reagan Right constituents believed there had to be some alien force to explain why Americans had changed so drastically, seeming to adopt values that were the antithesis of Middle America’s values in 1965. It had to be the fault of an alien voodoo beam! It had to be a Russian plot!

And so, therefore, it was a Russian plot.

The concept of “fishhook theory,” an underlying convergence between the liberal center and the fascist far right against the socialist far left, is easy to transform into a glib meme in response to the equally glib centrist meme of “horseshoe theory,” but the way tendencies like these can easily worm their way into the rhetoric of sober-minded liberals like Farrell and Schneier (even someone like Farrell who himself has written eloquently about reactionary/centrist affinities in the past) make it seem like a much more serious and insidious problem.


Tohubohu 11.29.18 at 4:18 pm

I’m a dilettante here but it seems to me that there’s a problem from the outset in construing “agreement” simply as knowledge, as in people “agree” on who their rulers are and “agree” on those rulers’ claims to legitimacy.
Such agreement is both more and less than knowledge; more in that it constrains the agreer to certain behaviors, less in that it often consists of normative trust rather than knowledge. Yes, I know Donald Trump is my president, and, yes, I know about his claims to legitimacy. But it is trust and constraint, not knowledge, that cause me to pay taxes while he is in office.


Aaron Lercher 11.29.18 at 8:21 pm

@1 (Michael) and @12 (WLGR) and @17 (Alato)
I think the analysis proposed in this paper seems to be society as a *knowledge* processing system, not just an information processing system. Information need not be true or justified, but knowledge (modulo Gettier) is true justified belief. But since information properly includes knowledge, one can apply concepts of information to it.

The paper has 57 instances of the word, “information,” and 109 instances of “knowledge.”

Now I’ll print out the paper and read it.


MFB 11.30.18 at 8:26 am

Alato (17), fair enough. I presume your problem is with this paragraph:

“And we certainly don’t need to “bolster public confidence in the institutions” if those institutions are actually the problem. What we need is to critique those institutions for their failings and support them when they do things which enable democracy rather than subverting democracy. The alternative is totalitarianism (uncritical support for official institutions regardless of their flaws is basically just that), and I’m a little worried that the authors of this post seem to lean in that political direction — which makes their claims to be serving democracy rather questionable”

What are the “institutions” providing information to enable us to decide about who to vote for? Obviously, the politicians and parties themselves, but if they are permitted to, they will naturally provide unreliable information about how wonderful they are, so there has to be some kind of fact-checking system.

That would have to be the media. At the moment, however, and in most countries that I’m aware of (but it applies particularly to the country which I’m most familiar with, South Africa) the media is so profoundly partisan that it can’t really be trusted to check the facts.

In the United States, for instance, there is a Republican media and a Democratic media, and to a large extent the narratives of these two media hardly intersect; they exist to promote the interests of their own side and abuse members of the other side. Unfortunately, this can be done fairly dishonestly; on one hand the abuse very often entails false accusations (or at least accusations that are only partly true) and on the other hand the promotion of their own side often entails deliberate suppression of inconvenient truths (you will not find Republican media acknowledging Trump’s very dubious legal and business record, or Democratic media acknowledging Obama’s record in promoting global warming by encouraging the extraction of fossil fuels).

In South Africa, for instance, there is a great deal of propaganda in the media denouncing the African National Congress government, often quite justified by events.

But a part of this propaganda relates to the accusation that the leadership of the African National Congress somehow handed control of the country over to a medium-sized Indian business operation run by the Gupta family, an accusation which is repeated endlessly without there being much evidence for it. (There is plenty of evidence that the Guptas had untoward influence and sought more influence — but of course that is true of virtually all rich South Africans.)

It would be boring to go into all the details, but the gist of the problem is that the media universally repeats this narrative regardless of justification, and when the narrative is occasionally tested and found to be false, the media either ignores this completely, or attacks the findings and proclaims that the people who have made these findings are in league with the Guptas. (For instance, when our left-wing political party, the “Economic Freedom Fighters” accused the current Minister of Public Enterprises of plotting to privatise state enterprises — which seems to be true — and of having had secret meetings with the Guptas when he was Finance Minister — which he has been forced to admit — the EFF was simply denounced by the press as corrupt, racist — the Minister being an Indian, although attacks on the Guptas are never deemed racist — and the EFF were claimed to be covering up their links with the Guptas. The fact that the press is largely owned by big business interests which stand to gain from such privatisation is, of course, never discussed publicly.)

If you can’t trust the politicians and their parties, and the press actively fabricates information about politicians and parties in order to mislead the public into advancing private interests, and if there are essentially no independent forces curtailing such behaviour, then I would suggest that the information required for a democratic system is not available. And in that case anyone who says “trust the institutions” is simply serving a corrupt system, even if s/he is too ignorant of the circumstances to know that this is the case.

I hope this makes things a little clearer.


SusanC 11.30.18 at 9:28 am

I think the paper puts far too much emphasis on outsider (external) threats.

An alternative interpretation: Media that allow the demos to fragment into two opposing parties who have fundamentally different views of reality is highly corrosive to the functioning of democracy.

This is not necessarily an outsider attack. Zuckerberg’s motive in creating Facebook was probably just to make money, rather than part of a Russian plot to destroy Western democracy. The destruction of democracy is something of an unanticipated side-effect. (Marxists will doubtless say theyve been talking about the tendency of capitalism to destroy itself for decades, so they, at least, anticipated something of this kind…)


SusanC 11.30.18 at 9:31 am

PS. Computer scientists like Bruce Schneier should be aware of the potential of complex systems to collapse due to bugs – uninteded effects – that aren’t intentional attacks.


Mike-SMO 11.30.18 at 10:20 am

“Facts” are an obsolete concept. “Fake News” is the new name for “propaganda”.

It seems as if the “Golden Age” of journalismhas passed and “facts” have become “interpretation-[facts]. That change reduces the ability of citizens to discuss the options available. Them words mean different things.

As I recall old class room studies, early “press” outlets were propaganda outlets owned and operated by “factions”. There was no expectation of a neutral, factual accounting of any issue. For an all to brief period, there was the theory and practice of “journalism” that was supposed to provide the electorate with the “facts” upon which they could make voting and policy decisions. That time is definitely in the past. Once again, we have “media”that is committed to one faction or another. There is typically no neutral “facts” and no separation between selected “facts” and political interests. Everybody has a “narrative”. “Facts” are boring and misleading. The conventional media outlets (MSM) are now propaganda outlets that are worth nothing except a source of key-words and names for a search on a non- compromised search (NOT by Google). The memes and rants out on the fringes suggests other searches.

That rooting around is necessary since there are no longer any “facts” in the current media. And that doesn’t begin to address “sins of omission” where embarassing or unfortunate information or facts are ignored by certain media outlets. That, of course, leaves voids in the conversation or logic among riends.

Today, there are no “facts” without a frame. That is reality; learn to deal with that.

I can not discuss technical aspects of election security without getting slammed by “vote suppression”. Several family members and a dear friend are immune suppressed and therefore un-screened “immigrants” are a very real concern, but that immediately draws “racism” and “White Privilege”. The “illegal alien” is an existential threat to me and mine.. Good luck discussing that aspect of national politics.

Election and internet security becomes “vote suppression”. “Jobs for Americans” is “racism”.

Today “facts” are inconceivable outside of their ideological frame. There is no longer such thing, in politics, as a “fact”.

By the way, your frame indicates that you never graduated 2nd grade.

Grow up. They are ALL liars and/or framers. Your “reality” and “facts” are a social and media construct.

Oh! My family is mostly Ukrainian. We know what your frame led to, last time ………..


Hidari 11.30.18 at 10:26 am

One more point:

‘This is also the situation that writers like Adrian Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.’

It is of course objectively false that the Russian populace, now, are wracked with despair (paranoia, of the United States and the ‘West’, maybe, but there are good reasons for that). Putin is one of the most popular political leaders on planet Earth (, second only to, ahem, Tony Blair at his peak (which probably gives an indication of how much these statistics are worth, but hey). Russian propaganda can’t account for that, as he is equally popular in numerous countries the West doesn’t care about like India and Greece.

The time of despair was the ’90s when Russia was under de facto American/Western control and when Russia was reduced to appealing to the International Community for food (

If one talks about the United States on the other hand, then this description makes a bit more sense. People in the US have little sense for what political parties or movements are genuine or fake: #russiagate, #theresistance, and pseudo populist movements like Tea Party (and the influence of Fox news etc.) have destroyed the public’s abilities to tell what is real and what is false, what is genuinely oppositional and what is not. There is also the increasing dysfunction of American political institutions. This despair is shown in opinion polls about trust in institutions, and the recent increase in the mortality rate, unparalleled in a country not undergoing major economic catastrophe, famine, plague or war.


Hidari 11.30.18 at 11:02 am

Just another note about that Russian ‘despair’.

‘Since 2014, most Russians have been happy with their countries’ direction’.


in the United States….


LFC 11.30.18 at 2:30 pm


Several years ago I read Knight and Johnson’s The Priority of Democracy, a book that H. Farrell organized a Crooked Timber roundtable on. And I just re-read my own blog post (from late 2012) about that book.

I suspect that Farrell and Schneier’s paper here (which I haven’t read, only the OP summarizing it) assumes a democracy that is functioning reasonably well, in a Deweyan (and a Knight-and-Johnson sense) in that it “reflexively” monitors its own performance in “structuring disagreement” productively. Translated into plain language, in this view a democracy is working well when the clash of different views on substantive issues leads not to a Habermasian consensus but to policies that work most of the time to help most people (or at least not harm them) and that are subject to revision and recalibration in the light of ongoing public debate.

Knight and Johnson say or at least imply that the U.S. falls well short of this model, in large part b.c there is an inequality of political influence; or as I’d put it, an oligarchical capitalism in which the wealthy wield vastly disproportionate political power can’t function well as a Deweyan democracy.

So I think that Farrell believes that a well-functioning democracy not only needs agreement on some “common political knowledge” but also needs some fairly high level of “equality of political influence.” The paper here apparently deals only w the first of these conditions, not the second.

Knight and Johnson did not get v. specific about measures (presumably redistributive) needed to get to “equality of political influence,” but assumed that some were necessary. And Farrell, following Knight and Johnson, probably does too. So Farrell’s view of an effectively functioning “cognitive democracy” (as he and C. Shalizi have labeled it) presupposes some social-democratic commitment to more political and economic equality.

This point can get obscured when Farrell puts up posts here that focus on “information” and “knowledge” and don’t explicitly mention the other (i.e., the egalitarian) part of the equation. But it’s pretty clear, at least to me, that that part is assumed.

Now you (WLGR) would presumably still reject his view as insufficiently anti-capitalist and just reformist social democracy, but I don’t think — and this is the main pt — that Farrell takes the U.S. polity as currently operating (against the background of ec. inequality, the power of money in politics, etc.) to be a well-functioning democracy, and he wd presumably acknowledge that even “perfect” information flows and agreement on “common political knowledge” would not solve the problem as long as substantial inequalities in political influence persist.


Z 11.30.18 at 2:37 pm

The perspective of the paper is interesting and there are many general theoretical tenets underlying with which I am in complete agreement, indeed that I consider the right theoretical foundations for discussing the functioning of a democratic society (e.g the description of the circulation of information and the whole of the section Common and Contested Political Knowledge). On the other hand, I sometimes feel that, perhaps in part due to the choice of analogy with actual cybersecurity, some crucial aspects are neglected, to the point that I believe some places of the argumentation invert causes and consequences.

Take for instance the assertion “Finally, [democracies] are vulnerable to attacks on the common political knowledge shared by groups, factions, and parties about their respective goals, levels of political support, and potential coalitions.” This seems (as in many other places) to presuppose that information actually flows in a society, as it may actually flow in some actual (digital) system of informations. In fact, of course, the type of information that is most cogent for political decision-making does not flow, it is voiced, and people typically don’t absorb it, they are being made to listen (and insight that lies at the core of Dewey’s work in the liberal and pragmatist tradition, but which has also been strongly reiterated recently in a superficially different vein in Chantal Mouffe’s On the Political). I’m not claiming that Bruce Schneier and you don’t acknowledge this (on the contrary, you explicitly do, for instance in footnote 30) but this changes things quite a bit.

Indeed, if these works are correct that the possibility of antagonism is an integral part of the self-reinforcing process of social enquiry (and thus of actual circulation of information in a society), then it follows that it is not quite possible to confuse social groups about “their respective goals, levels of political support, and potential coalitions, as well as […] the fairness of the political system” – in a democratic society groups decide for themselves that their respective goals are, who their allies are, and they don’t trust in the fairness of the system, they know they are strong enough to prevent the political system being unfair to them. When, on the other hand, these social pre-conditions ebbs, that is to say when the democratic sentiment (to employ a classical language) or the specific cognitive properties of a given social structure (to employ those of the paper) wanes, then the social structures becomes vulnerable to such attacks. Or in concrete terms, the flooding attacks on page 14 and 15 are not attack on the vulnerable points of a democracy, that there are objects of discussion at all is the telltale sign that some groups in American democracy have lost the social power to make their social experience known antagonistically and thus that there has been a weakening of the (positive) properties of information-flow in genuinely democratic societies (just to be clear, I’m not saying at all that the groups that have lost this power are the one susceptible to be influenced by flooding attacks, quite the contrary in fact, a powerful motivation to cut oneself from the flow of information that permeates an actually democratic society is when this flow transmits values that would challenge one’s privilege). That these flooding attacks are not anymore the trivialities they should be is the sign that, seen as an information system, the American society is not a democracy anymore, not the the consequence of that fact (to give a comparison, minor Western powers have been the target of such flooding attacks for decades, mainly from the US, but occasionally from the USSR and now Russia as well, and these attempts have in general been rightly considered footnotes in the history of the political process).


Z 11.30.18 at 2:55 pm

Just an additional detail, and I’m sorry if this sounds to critical, this is not my intention.

I always find it slightly strange to give a recent scholarly reference to an insight that certainly has been well-known and fully fleshed for centuries. Here, I’m referring for instance to “As Russell Hardin notes, no government is strong enough to impose its will on its population if the population decides not to cooperate with it”. Well, I’m sure that Russell Hardin notes it and if his discussion of that topic is particularly interesting, then it is surely a good idea to quote him, but La Boétie wrote a whole book on that topic in 1576 (“For the time being, I would be content to understand only how it may be that so many men, towns, cities, nations suffer under a lone tyrant who has no power but the one they give him, no capability to harm them further than what they willingly endure”), and if you are wary of citing French intellectuals from the Renaissance, surely “we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion” from the Essays is hardly an obscure quote of Hume. I don’t think Russell Hardin could legitimately complain that these two authors have some priorities on his work in 1990.


Neville Morley 11.30.18 at 4:20 pm

I feel I need to think this through further, and read the full paper, but immediate reaction is that it’s interesting that the focus is on information and knowledge rather than beliefs and values; do the former terms imply a direct relationship with reality (so the problem with contested knowledge is that one side is simply more wrong, not just that there is dispute), or is this on the contrary adopting the actors’ perspective that they possess knowledge (even if an external viewer might categorise this rather as belief)?

Also, I feel contractually obliged to mention Thucydides’ account of the stasis at Corcyra, which shows increasing polarisation and the collapse of shared knowledge, information and values in the absence of both social media and deliberate external interference…


Wild Cat 11.30.18 at 5:33 pm


Perhaps we can start a GoFundMe for your much-needed mental-health treatments?


J-D 11.30.18 at 7:39 pm


In any case, it is by no means apparent to me that Trump’s America is by any objective measure more democratic than Putin’s Russia …

I don’t know how you assess whether a country is democratic, but the first thing I consider is whether it’s possible for a government to be voted out of office. For example, in the case of my own country, I observe that national governments have regularly been voted out of office: the instances in elections that I have voted in personally were in 1983, 1996, 2007, and 2013. I have found no evidence that anything has change since 2013 that would make this no longer possible, so I conclude that it’s still possible for the government to be voted out of office.

Applying this test to the US, I observe that Presidents were voted out office in 1976, 1980, and 1988; also, although term limits prevented the last three Presidents (before the current one, that is) from running for re-election, their parties were voted out of office in each case. Again, I’m not aware of evidence that changes since 2016 have made this no longer possible, so I conclude that’s it’s still possible for US governments (and Presidents, if not term-limited) to be voted out of office.

Considering the Russian case, I observe no occasion when the government was voted out of office, so I ask what the evidence is that it’s possible for a Russian government to be voted out of office.

The interesting thing about writing a comment like this is the extremely high probability (judging from past experience) that some readers of it will reach false conclusions about what my opinions are and will insist that those conclusions represent my true opinions no matter how strongly I myself repudiate them. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about this, so I just resign myself to it. There is some stimulation in the suspense as I wait to find out exactly how I will be misinterpreted. (But perhaps nobody will bother responding, in which case I’ll never discover the exact content of those misinterpretations: at once relief and let-down.)


Anarcissie 12.01.18 at 4:08 pm

J-D 11.30.18 at 7:39 pm @ 39 —
In the Russian case, you have a mighty small sample size there.

But in any event, one might reflect that history affords many examples of governments changing leading personnel or even parties without substantially changing either the philosophy or the policies of the government. Whether that is democratic or not awaits a more exact definition of democracy.


Heliopause 12.01.18 at 4:22 pm

“the first thing I consider is whether it’s possible for a government to be voted out of office.”

Well, since it’s impossible to vote out the permanent government in the U.S.:
I guess we have our answer.


bruce wilder 12.01.18 at 4:48 pm

The OP and comments on the concept of knowledge led me to reflect as I was listening to the PBS NewsHour and then some CNN program the other night and read a New York Times report on how a Manafort attorney kept in touch with the Trump White House.

As far as I can tell actual facts are remarkably few and far between in this “information flow”. I was struck watching PBS by how uncritical they are about assertions of fact in the form of generalizations in commentary. David Brooks was asserting that Trump support for Saudi Arabia reversed decades of Republican hostility to the regime. I am not kidding. CNN was endless speculation and solipsistic assessment of what this meant and what was normal for officials to know or do. The lengthy NYT piece had exactly one sentence of actual reporting of fact.

I have no idea what it all means for propaganda or democracy, though it cannot be good. I have never experienced Russia’s political media so it is impossible to compare.


Layman 12.01.18 at 7:48 pm

J-D: “I don’t know how you assess whether a country is democratic, but the first thing I consider is whether it’s possible for a government to be voted out of office.”

We have no like button, so just want to say that this was an excellent response. Well said.


J-D 12.01.18 at 9:23 pm


In the Russian case, you have a mighty small sample size there.

Absolutely true, and I had that thought in mind when I wrote my comment, and when similar thoughts have occurred to me in the past.

The first time an Indian government was voted out of office was in 1977. One explanatory hypothesis is that something changed between 1947 and 1977 that made it possible for this to happen; another is that it was possible from 1947 even though it did not actually happen until 1977. There’s no final definitive test that would settle the question as between these two hypotheses, but that doesn’t make the question meaningless: it’s something that could be meaningfully discussed by scholars of Indian history and politics (into which category I do not fall), with objective evidence brought to bear.

It was considerations such as this that I had in mind when, in writing my comment, I framed a question about what evidence there is that it’s possible for a Russian government to be voted out of office, a question I would expect scholars of Russian history and politics (another category into which I do not fall) to be able to comment on.

If something has happened, that’s incontrovertible evidence that it was possible and at least some evidence that it is still possible; but by making that observation I don’t exclude evidence that something is possible even though it has not yet happened.

But in any event, one might reflect that history affords many examples of governments changing leading personnel or even parties without substantially changing either the philosophy or the policies of the government. Whether that is democratic or not awaits a more exact definition of democracy.

Democracy is a complex concept, and that consideration was in my mind when I used the expression ‘the first thing I consider’. I don’t offer it as the test of democracy, but only as a test. Having considered that question first, one of the questions it might reasonably be followed up with is: ‘What changes when a government is voted out of office, and what doesn’t?’ It would be folly to expect voting a government out of office to change everything, but folly also to expect it to change nothing. I still think my question is a good first question, although not the only question.


“the first thing I consider is whether it’s possible for a government to be voted out of office.”

Well, since it’s impossible to vote out the permanent government in the U.S.:
I guess we have our answer.

Every country I know anything about has, or had, a rich and powerful elite which could not be voted out of office: but in some of those instances the possibility of voting the government out of office existed and in some it didn’t. Again, the observation suggests possible important follow-up questions (‘How much influence over government is exerted by a rich and powerful elite?’ ‘How great are the inequalities of wealth and power?’) without making the initial question meaningless or insignificant.


Yan 12.01.18 at 10:21 pm

Bruce Wilder: “David Brooks was asserting that Trump support for Saudi Arabia reversed decades of Republican hostility to the regime. I am not kidding. “

I’ve honestly given up trying to make sense of any of the du-jour “end of truth” discourse on either political side. My sense is that the right is more cynical: they don’t care about the facts. While the center pseudoleft is more deluded: they sincerely think they care about the facts but they’ve lost contact with reality to such a boggling degree that there’s zero difference between what they wish were true and what they automatically believe to be true.

But then these meta discussions by centrists about what to do in a post-truth era and the multiple levels of irony in their constant mocking of the idea of “fake news” while simultaneously charging their enemies with, of course, fake news, makes me wonder if they’re just as cynical as the right but just really incompetent at the kind of social manipulation and political effectiveness that is the practical virtue of cynicism.

But then I realize it’s irrelevent. The upshot is that all of our media is dominated by two ideological groups, the right and the center, whose every assertion is predominantly based in a desire to control the population’s beliefs in the service of a political end, and only very shakily attached to evidence or reasoned argument.

Anyone who doesn’t want to join the rhinos of either horn or stripe must, as a matter of practice, treat everything they say as likely false to a non-trivial degree. We are forced on the direst moral and political questions to attempt, against all possibility, to live as skeptics in the traditional sense, suspending judgment as much and wherever we can, while preserving political commitment and non-skepticism only in our resistance to their folly. The centrists are right about one thing. In a state of mass psychosis, only resistance, not politics, is possible.


Donald 12.02.18 at 1:09 am

At another blog I acquired a reputation as a weird obsessive on the subject of Yemen and it was true, but of course I think I was right. The US support for the Saudi war was clearly immoral right from the start and made us complicit in crimes against humanity. There was just enough coverage in the press so you couldn’t say it wasn’t covered at all, but most Americans knew nothing about it. During the Obama years most Republicans in Congress ( with some exceptions) supported the war, along with maybe half the Democrats. The Obama spokesman John Kirby regularly excused the Saudis on the grounds that it was inaccurate targeting that had them bombing civilians, in contrast to the Russian bombing in Syria, which was condemned as deliberate slaughter. There is a YouTube video placed there by Russia Today where you can see this. It is significant that this video clip or Kirby’s apologetics never received much coverage in the US. The Obama and Trump Administrations have both told the same lie— they have to, or admit complicity in war crimes.

Until very recently both the Obama and Trump Administrations got away with this. The Trump media shield started to crumble with the bombing of the school bus in August, but much more so with the murder of Khashoggi, which Tom Friedman said was worse than Yemen. Only Friedman would be stupid enough to say this openly, but clearly for our political elites the murder of one of their social equals mattered more than 85,000 dead children.

My point is that we don’t have a useful flow of information in this country when it comes to monstrous crimes where the blame is to large extent bipartisan. This even applies to crimes where one can blame Trump alone. If you track them down, you will find the NYT editors were much harsher in their condemnation of the Russian bombing of Aleppo than in their condemnation of the American bombing of Raqqa and Mosul. But the rubble looks the same.


Donald 12.02.18 at 1:23 am

Here is the Russia Today YouTube video I referenced. Kirby’s apologetics for the Saudis begins about minute 7.

This little exchange and more generally the American government’s position should have been front page news back when the war first started. When the US supports war crimes the press should be shouting about this from the rooftops. But the mainstream press in the US usually seems reluctant to hold the American government to the same standards they would hold the Russian government. And even now, when Yemen is finally receiving the attention it deserves, the press tiptoes around the history of which people here supported this abomination, what they said, and why they did it.


Orange Watch 12.02.18 at 4:04 am


If something has happened, that’s incontrovertible evidence that it was possible and at least some evidence that it is still possible; but by making that observation I don’t exclude evidence that something is possible even though it has not yet happened.

This is such misleading statement given what you previously stated that I’m almost not sure how to address it. Whether or not a government can be voted out of office at any given point in history only incontrovertibly shows that they could be voted out at the particular moment they were voted out. If the government’s faction fragments, and another faction uses the same anti-democratic means their immediate predecessor used to hold onto power to obtain power, even that means nothing. If the government is one of broadly agreed anti-democratic factions who vie for power at the ballot box but prevent any other faction from meaningfully compete, inter-party elections become a front for intra-factional power struggle, not democracy. Or on a more pointed note, absolute dictatorships have been voted out of office after decades of autocratic tyranny and fraudulent elections; that says nothing about what they were before or what their replacement is.

Regime change following an election is not ipso facto proof of democracy, or even of a democratic regime change. It’s only proof of one (at that moment in history) if the election was fair, open, and democratic – and what THAT requires is another debate entirely. To quote that tired old adage, elections are necessary for democracy, but they are not sufficient.


LFC 12.02.18 at 4:31 am

re your second graph @39: incumbent Presidents lost in ’76, ’80, and ’92 (not ’88). (In ’76 Ford was an incumbent but not an elected one, having acceded to the office after Nixon’s resignation.)


Faustusnotes 12.02.18 at 6:12 am

Yan, are you suggesting BoBo is a centrist?


J-D 12.02.18 at 9:08 am


re your second graph @39: incumbent Presidents lost in ’76, ’80, and ’92 (not ’88).

Yes, my mistake. Thanks for catching that.

Orange Watch

Whether or not a government can be voted out of office at any given point in history only incontrovertibly shows that they could be voted out at the particular moment they were voted out.

Yes, of course. It’s only incontrovertible evidence that it was possible at the time it happened. But it can still be some evidence (although not incontrovertible) that it’s still possible. The fact that several Indian governments have been voted out at past elections is not incontrovertible evidence that it’s still possible now. The question then is, what’s the controverting evidence? What has changed since the 2014 election that might make what was possible in 2014 impossible in 2019? I’m no expert on Indian affairs, there may well be evidence of such a change; all I can say is that it hasn’t come to my attention, and if somebody does draw it to my attention I will be appreciative.

To quote that tired old adage, elections are necessary for democracy, but they are not sufficient.

I’m not sure what your reason is for making this remark, because I didn’t write, didn’t mean, and don’t think that elections are sufficient for democracy. What I assert is that whether it’s possible for governments to be voted out of office is a test of democracy. If you think that elections are necessary for democracy, what is it that you think you are disagreeing with me about?


Omega Centauri 12.03.18 at 2:25 am

Arguing that the possibility of the government being the criteria for declaring a system democratic is a bit contrived. What we find far more commonly, is that it is usually “possible”, but that the height of the hurdle to be overcome can be so high that the odds of overcoming are less than one percent per year. Think PRI domination of Mexican politics in the twentieth century. Soft means such as state-controlled news/propaganda monopolies can be effective most of the time.


J-D 12.03.18 at 8:08 am

Omega Centauri

I didn’t suggest that it was the criterion, only that it was a criterion; and if you know of any evidence that it was possible for the PRI to be voted out of government in Mexico in the twentieth century, I’d appreciate it if you’d share it with me, as I know of none. To be precise, it was evidently a possibility at the very end of the century, because in 2000 it actually happened; but when before that (after the foundation of the party) was it possible?

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