Knowledge, Counterknowledge and Conspiracy in Populist Argumentation: Computational and Interpretive Analysis of Finnish Anti-Immigrant Online Publics
Populist politics – claiming to represent ’the people’ against a corrupt elite – have recently been increasingly connected to ‘post-truth politics’, based on emotions and identity, taking a relativist or ambivalent position to facts, disregarding them at will. Often, this is attributed to the strengthened role of online media, which enables anyone to create and disseminate ‘counterknowledge’, challenging established epistemic authorities such as experts and the mainstream media. Counterknowledge often takes the form of conspiracy theory: claims of knowledge about a secret power-holding elite. In this paper, I take the Finnish public sphere as my case, since it has seen an unprecedented anti-immigrant mobilization in the 2010s, fuelled in part by counterknowledge. The Finnish anti-immigration scene was quickly consolidated in 2009 after the founding of Hommaforum.org, an online discussion board for self-proclaimed ‘critics of immigration’, leading many activists to join the right-wing populist Finns Party and some to enter parliament in the 2011 landslide victory for the party. In a further development, encouraged by the migrant crisis from 2015 on, several websites sprung up spreading political news often of questionable truth value, accusing immigrants of serious crimes, mainstream journalists of covering them up, and politicians of facilitating a destructive assault on Finnish society by immigrants. They combined facts with fiction and rumours, cherry-picking, colouring and framing information to promote a radical anti-immigrant agenda. The most prominent one, MV-lehti (‘WTF Media’), became immensely popular, while at the same time street violence against immigrants intensified and government asylum policy was tightened. I argue that production and dissemination of counterknowledge is instrumental in such populist mobilization. An effective way to challenge official policies, such as the intake of asylum-seekers and state-sanctioned multiculturalism, is to claim they are supported by false knowledge, and produce and circulate alternative knowledge countering it. These websites did that. I study knowledge, counterknowledge and conspiracy theory in Finnish anti-immigrant online publics by computational and interpretive methods. I analysed 318,081 messages on the anti-immigration discussion board Hommaforum.org and 13,497 news articles by the conspiracist countermedia ‘WTF Media’ by a combination of computational topic modeling (LDA, Latent Dirichlet Allocation) to locate pertinent discussions and themes, and a qualitative, interpretive reading to analyse the views on knowledge, counterknowledge and conspiracy presented in them. A multi-faceted view emerges: while often subscribing to conspiracist views, many anti-immigration activists nevertheless claim to hold knowledge, truth and evidence in high esteem. They often profess strict positivist and empiricist views – an overblown ‘scientism’, overly reliant on the possibilities of scientific inquiry to gain knowledge about society and use it for ‘rational’ governance – and strongly oppose any ambivalent or relativist truth orientations. For them, it is the multiculturalists and ‘establishment hacks’ who are ‘post-truth’. The populist relationship to truth is multifaceted but in my material, often absolutist and black-and-white, like its relationship to power and democracy.