Fake Becomes Legit: Disinformation, Social Media and Democracy

mejias2015-05-225x300In our final post centring on the US presidential inauguration, Ulises Ali Mejias reflects on the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the role of social media. Ulises is associate professor at the State University of New York at Oswego. He is the author of Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World (2013, University of Minnesota Press). With Nick Couldry, he is currently writing a book on data as a capitalist social relation.

The previous two inauguration pieces can be found here and here.


While we didn’t exactly predict the rise of ‘fake news’, in 2013 a Russian colleague and I completed an academic article on the disinformation tactics used during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Like many others, we started to recognize the ways in which citizens generate, consume and distribute false information by interacting with old and new media, contributing to a social order where lies acquire increasing authority. While we focused on the Russia-Ukraine case, we felt it was important to point out that these tactics might serve as a template for future scenarios, including in Western democracies.

The article will not see the light of day until this year, four years after it was finished. Interestingly, part of the reason it has taken so long to get it published is that some reviewers felt our argument should omit references to Western democracies. The sentiment seemed to be that this kind of stuff could not happen here.

That was, of course, before the 2016 US presidential elections.

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The EU Referendum: “We will burn it all down” – War, Blackmail and the Case for the European Union

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


Our next guest contributor to the EU forum is Philip Cunliffe. Philip is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and editor-in-chief of the journal International Peacekeeping. He is co-editor, with Chris Bickerton and Alex Gourevitch, of Politics Without Sovereignty (UCL Press, 2007), and author of Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South (Hurst, 2014).  His most recent book, co-edited with Kai Michael Kenkel, is Brazil as a Rising Power: Intervention Norms and the Contestation of Global Order (Routledge, 2016).


It’s often heard that the European Union (EU) is a peace project – an institution engineered to bring peace, prosperity and stability to a war-torn continent that was at the core of global conflict over the last century. This was the animus behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on 9 May 2016, in which he claimed that Britain leaving the EU could lead to renewed rivalries, geopolitical tension and ultimately war in Europe. It is one of the most powerful, popular and enduring claims given in defence of the EU and one that drastically raises the political stakes in the debate over Brexit.

Given that this claim comes from our political leaders, it is a remarkably menacing way of eliciting popular support: Vote for us, they seem to be saying, vote for the European Union, or war will be the result ... That political elites could threaten voters so brazenly while implying their own powerlessness to control the course of events at the same time speaks to the strength of popular (mis)conceptions about the origins of conflict in Europe.

A screenshot from "Paxman in Brussels" (BBC), shot in the EU visitors' centre (h/t Ben Pile)

A screenshot from “Paxman in Brussels” (BBC), shot in the EU visitors’ centre (h/t Ben Pile)

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The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


The choice facing Britain in the EU referendum is best understood, I suggest, using two concepts that I’ve used a lot in my work with Shahar Hameiri recently: ‘the politics of scale’, and state transformation. In a nutshell: the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies. Restoring popular control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in a progressive, internationalist direction.

In political geography, a ‘scale’ is a defined socio-political space, which is usually located within one or more hierarchies of related spaces. Examples can include tiers of established governance – boroughs, cities, provinces, nations, and regions, for example. They could be defined ethnically or religiously – a parish, the ummah – or even environmentally – habitats, bio-regions or the global environment. What’s fundamentally at stake in the EU referendum is the primary scale at which British citizens should be governed: the national (Brexit) or the regional scale (Bremain). The scale of governance is contested because different scales involve different configurations of actors, resources, power relations and opportunity structures, privileging some interests and agendas over others.

In the post-war decades, the entire Western-led global economic and political order was designed to consolidate the nation-state as a ‘taken-for-granted’ scale and space of governance. Within Western states, a new Fordist-Keynesian bargain was struck between key social forces, brokered by corporatist states: capitalists bought social peace from labour in exchange for steady expansion in wages and living standards. The Bretton Woods settlement supported this by restricting international finance and regulating currencies, which helped states plan their economies. The postwar order thus upheld ‘the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development’, as Bob Jessop puts it. Even the early phase of European integration was designed to support national development, thereby securing ‘the European rescue of the nation-state’.

This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.

This all began to change in the 1970s. That decade’s crisis of capitalist profitability eroded the basis of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact, which shattered amidst renewed labour insurgency. The new right’s solution to the crisis was to smash organised labour, deregulate industry and finance, and restore capitalist hegemony on the basis of a neoliberal social order. Scale was a crucial element in this struggle. The quest for nationally-based development was essentially jettisoned in favour of what we now call ‘globalisation’: the transnationalisation of investment, production and consumption. Allowing investment to flow globally – to wherever had the most ‘competitive’ wages and operating environment – was a vital means to erode the power of organised labour.

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