Europe must heed the lesson of Trump's 'fake news'

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder

Giles Merritt warns EU policymakers against the communications failures that fuelled Trumpism, and urges a regional media blitz to insulate Europe against the Trump virus.


Europeans fear that Trumpism, even though widely discredited, may yet mutate and cross the Atlantic. Can we inoculate ourselves against shortsighted nationalist panaceas that opportunists will claim as cures for Covid’s economic ills?

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the US political maelstrom, it must be the high proportion of voters so prejudiced as to be impervious to rational argument. Soundbites and appeals to their emotions are what they want, not hard facts.

We Europeans may think Trump’s success with ‘alternative facts’ and his denunciation of ‘fake news’ has been a purely American phenomenon, but that’s a dangerous assumption. The rise of the far-right in Europe and the vulnerable flaws in our liberal democracies also cast long shadows.

The closure of so many local newspapers across America in recent years bore a major responsibility for the nation’s deepening divisions

One note that rang out amid the welter of opinions and commentaries after rioters invaded Capitol Hill deserves close attention in Europe. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder warned that the closure of so many local newspapers across America in recent years bore a major responsibility for the nation’s deepening divisions.

His analysis is that people trusted local newspapers and broadcasters because they could check media reporting against reality. But that no longer holds true now that these are being squeezed out by social media and ‘citizen journalists’. The solution, Snyder believes, is to bring about the ‘re-birth’ of independent, small-town news reporting.

There’s an important lesson here for the EU. The European Commission has long ignored regional and local media, and in doing so, it has compounded its communications shortcomings. Despite digital competition, regional newspapers still command substantial readerships throughout Europe. Yet EU officialdom seldom feeds them with tailor-made stories that make a case in local terms for closer European integration and cooperation.

A focus on local reporting throughout continental Europe would pay handsome dividends

“All politics is local,” a US senator once famously remarked, but that has never been how Brussels sees it. The Eurocrats in the Commission cling to the notion that national news media holds the key to ‘getting closer to the citizen’.

The list of Commission mis-steps in the fields of information and communication dates back over many years and is testament to EU officialdom’s preoccupation with ‘good news’ rather than bad. Too many spokesmen, seeking headlines for too many commissioners, and the mistaken belief that reporters in the Brussels press corps are opinion-formers, has fed rather than allayed Euroscepticism.

It’s not too late, though, to heed Snyder’s advice and strengthen links with Europe’s regional media. Whether over vaccine supplies or frontier controls, the pandemic’s pressures already threaten EU solidarity, and looming economic strains will exacerbate these. This is where a focus on local reporting throughout continental Europe would pay handsome dividends.

Several years ago, I floated the idea of ‘Newsroom Europe’ – a novel EU project to create and fund a corps of independent journalists from all member states to report EU-relevant stories from a very specific local angle. But the idea of ‘uncontrolled’ coverage free of official vetting apparently proved anathema to top Eurocrats.

Countering fake news with hard facts that voters trust will be as crucial in Europe as it has been lacking in the US

The constraints of confidentiality are such that the EU’s media relations have always been highly sensitive. However, they are also going to be more important than ever. The EU has been weathering the Covid storm well, with opinion polls showing popular support for policies like its €750 billion recovery programme. But the spectre of populism is also rising.

US-based Pew researchers have found that sympathisers in Europe to right-wing political parties are swinging strongly against the EU. That’s not so surprising, but when over four-fifths of Sweden Democrats and more than three-quarters of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) backers in Germany don’t support the EU, there are grounds for concern. Roughly two-thirds of voters who favour Europe’s populists are ranging against the EU, making it hard to rule out some strain of Trumpism if lifestyles in post-Covid Europe are hit hard.

Countering fake news with hard facts that voters trust will be as crucial in Europe as it has been lacking in the US. If ‘regionalising’ news coverage of EU policies will help, that’s a small price to pay for neutralising a dangerous political virus.

Insights

view all insights

Next Event

view all events
Track title

Category

00:0000:00
Stop playback
Video title

Category

Close

We use cookies to improve your online experience.
For more information, visit our privacy policy

Africa initiative logo

Dismiss