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Knowledge, Counterknowledge and Conspiracy in Populist Argumentation
Conspiracy in Populist
Tuukka Ylä-Anttila, University of Tampere
• Claim 1: Post-truth: politicians (populists) indifferent
towards the truth (Economist 10 Sep 2016, Guardian 15 Nov 2016)
• Claim 2: Populists are anti-intellectual, base arguments
on feelings and ‘experience of the common people’ rather
than expertise (Saurette & Gunster, Wodak, Oliver & Rahn, Hofstadter, Hawkins)
• Do these claims hold in the case of Finnish online
countermedia and populist mobilization?
A radical-right populist upsurge 2007–
Government: The (True) Finns Party
Online: Hommaforum, MV-lehti (‘WTF Media’)
Street: Soldiers of Odin
• Social psychology: social biases affect communication of
People self-fill gaps in causal narratives (Lewandowsky), believe
claims that confirm views (Kahan) and don’t believe dissonant
• Sociology: authorities deteriorate in (post)modernity
People get knowledge from others, not inquiry (Van Dijk), even
modern institutions based on faith (Giddens)
“How do you choose which expert to believe?” (Knight)
Not all ‘alt. facts’ are false (Bale, Keeley)
Conspiracists ascribe causality/agency on events for ontological
security, to explain the experienced world (Aupers, Fenster, Gosa)
• Alternative knowledge claims are highly salient in
modern politics, particularly populism
Modes of epistemic anti-elitism
• Epistemological populism:
“to valorize the knowledge of ‘the common people,’ which they
possess by virtue of their proximity to everyday life, as
distinguished from the rarefied knowledge of elites”
(Saurette & Gunster)
“an alternative knowledge system ... challenging ...
knowledge industries such as the academia or the
mainstream press” (Gosa)
“a populist theory of power (89) ... an interpretive framework
(95) ... the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or
group covertly controls the political and social order (1)”
• “LDA [...] assumes that there are a set of topics in a
collection (the number is specified in advance) [...] Terms
that are prominent within a topic are those that tend to
occur in documents together more frequently than one
would expect by chance [...] each document exhibits
those topics with different proportions” (DiMaggio et al.
• A probabilistic, mixed-membership model: what we get
are probabilities of topics per document and document
per topic, based on word frequencies
• An unsupervised machine learning method: fully
inductive in the modeling stage, no researcher input
Epistemological populism – not there!
• Rather than valorizing experiential knowledge or
feelings, contributors often emphasize rationality
and empirical evidence:
“Rational, evidence-based thought is our weapon against opinions
based on feelings” (WTF Media, 22 Apr 2016)
“That’s just abstract poetry, how can you get a PhD in that”
(Hommaforum user on sociology, 19 Feb 2016)
“Attitudes towards refugees are an excellent example of how cognitive
bias affects people. The tendency to skate over all negative
consequences is a bias, in which one thinks one’s own view is based in
reason” (Hommaforum, 19 Nov 2015)
• Rather than denouncing expertise altogether,
contributors engage in creating counterknowledge:
“Surface stations ‘observe’ more warming than in the troposphere,
several times more in fact. According to radio sensors, for almost 60
years the troposphere didn’t warm at all even though CO2 levels
increased. Thus, the anthropogenic global warming theory remains a
theory” (Hommaforum user, 31 May 2016)
“Intelligence testing is a fully neutral and objective yardstick for
filtering those who attempt to enter the country. We can’t read their
thoughts, but we can measure their brain capacity. And it only takes
ten minutes” (Hommaforum, 9 Jan 2016)
• Excessive eagerness for ‘proof’ produces
conspiracism, seeing agency behind events:
“Multiculturalism is mostly advanced by cynical old men with their
own selfish interests and for that the softness of women is an apt tool.
Women buy the media sob stories about dead kids in the
Mediterranean” (Hommaforum user, 4 May 2016)
“The New World Order championed by the American billionaire David
Rockefeller and the Bilderberg Group [...] is coming [...] The Muslim
conquest of Europe is a prologue for the destruction of Europeans”
(WTF Media 21 Mar 2016)
• Rather than denouncing expertise, replacing it with folk
wisdom, contributors denounce particular experts
• They create counterknowledge, alternative knowledge
systems with alt. authorities which support their politics
with a strong empiricist-positivist-rationalist bent
• Often takes the form of conspiracism
• Rather than believe the ‘post-truth’ thesis, we should
study different modes of epistemic opposition and
Is counterknowledge a strategy of the radical right while
populism goes together with ‘folk wisdom’?
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Bail, C. A. 2014. “The cultural environment: Measuring culture with big data.” Theory and Society.
Bale, Jeffrey M. 2007. “Political Paranoia v. Political Realism: on Distinguishing Between Bogus Conspiracy Theories and
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DiMaggio, Nag & Blei. 2013. “Exploiting Affinities between Topic Modeling and the Sociological Perspective on Culture.” Poetics.
Evans, M. S. 2014. “A Computational Approach to Qualitative Analysis in Large Textual Datasets.” PLoS ONE.
Fenster, Mark. 2008. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. University of Minnesota Press.
Gosa, Travis L. 2011. “Counterknowledge, Racial Paranoia, and the Cultic Milieu: Decoding Hip Hop Conspiracy Theory.” Poetics.
Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106–131.
Lewandowsky, Stephan, Klaus Oberauer, and Gilles Gignac. 2012. “NASA Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore (Climate) Science
Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science.” Psychological Science.
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