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'Your So-Called "Experts" are Funded by Brussels’: Social Media Discourse and Public Understandings of Expertise and Democracy

European Union
Social Media
Asimina Michailidou
Universitetet i Oslo
Asimina Michailidou
Universitetet i Oslo

Who qualifies as an expert in the public’s consciousness and which experts are legitimized to proffer an opinion in public discourse? In an era when the spread of political falsehoods in the public sphere is rapid and populist-style rhetoric commonplace, it is imperative that we understand the mechanism through which populist communication distorts public discourse and contributes to the erosion of trust in democratic institutions. In this context, I present an empirical study that aims to capture the extent to which populism acts as a distortion filter in public discourses regarding a number of recent EU crisis or controversies (Brexit, the refugee crisis, Eurocrisis, TTIP), in which the role of experts has been key but also fiercely contested. The focus here is on social media (Twitter in particular) due to their ‘affinity’ to populist rhetoric, as Paolo Gerbaudo puts it. Taking a public claims-making analysis perspective, I show that at first glance, one in three tweets refer to formal expert sources in a positive manner. One could surmise thus that public scepticism towards experts on Twitter is not in sync with the general climate of expertise- and fact-rejection or fact-distortion that is prevalent in European public spheres in recent times. A closer reading of the results, however, reveals that the expert opinions valued most are those of perceived independent experts. These are experts thought not to be receiving any kind of payment or funding from national or EU bodies, nor to hold any advisory role within EU institutions. Their expert analyses are most frequently used to support ‘anti’ arguments, for example claims against EU immigration policies, against EU membership but also against Brexit, or against TTIP. It therefore appears that a key element for the public acceptance of an expert is their perceived independence from the established political status quo. The quality of evidence that experts present appears to be of little or no relevance for those twitting about their cause. Failing to find a suitable expert source, the next most favoured strategy is to refer to public knowledge or draft in ‘fake’ experts, for example, instead of referring to an analysis by an economics professor to include a link to the financial impact assessment of Brexit written by a Brexit activist. The profile of such folks’ or soft experts is not immediately obvious simply by reading a tweet: what sticks to the mind of most readers is that some expert has expressed scepticism or doubts or warnings against a specific highly contested EU policy or institution. This epitomises the effectiveness of social media as platforms where fake news and misinformation proliferate. The paper uses this data to propose a future research agenda, whereby mediat(iz)ed conceptualisations of expertise are juxtaposed with policy-makers’ conceptualizations as well as public opinion survey data to determine more precisely the effect of populism on the understanding of the democratic public sphere and the role of expertise in democracy.
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