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European Research Executive Agency
News article17 May 2024European Research Executive Agency5 min read

Researcher’s Insights on Democracy in Europe: “The Status of Truth is Changing.”

In our interview with Dr. Maximilian Conrad, the RECLAIM project coordinator emphasises how research can tackle disinformation in an era of post-truth politics.

© European Union, 2024

On 6 – 9 June 2024, over 400 million EU citizens will head to the polls in the European Elections. This year of democratic expression is an opportunity to explore the multi-faceted ways research contributes to democracy. In light of this, we spoke with Dr. Maximilian Conrad who is a professor specialising in European Integration at the University of Iceland's Faculty of Political Science. 

Dr. Conrad is leading the Horizon Europe project RECLAIM which seeks to analyse the impact of disinformation on liberal democracy in Europe. With a research team comprising thirteen different institutions across Europe, one of the project’s key aims is to develop policy recommendations and toolkits based on empirical findings to address the phenomenon of post-truth politics.

What motivated you to initiate the RECLAIM project? 

It has become quite clear that something fundamental is happening in liberal democracies. This is specifically the case in political culture since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 - and that it is something that we need to address. 

There are lots of reasons to study the impact of this emerging post-truth politics on liberal democracy, but one main motivation for me was that we need to find ways to tackle this challenge in terms of citizenship education.

Could you elaborate more on post-truth politics? Can we say there ever was an era of ‘truth politics’?

Post-truth politics does not imply any sort of nostalgia for a preceding era of ‘truth politics’. We are primarily concerned with the here and now – and in this sense, with what you might call a changing status of truth in political discourse. We are talking about a specific style of politics that appears to be closely linked to populism.

As an ideology, populism makes a fundamental distinction between elites and the ‘actual’ people, where elites are portrayed as out of touch with reality as it is experienced by the people. This also means that facts communicated by elites are contested or even outright rejected by post-truth populists on the grounds that the people should not trust allegedly corrupt elites and experts. That makes it extremely difficult to have any meaningful conversation about politics. Understanding this link to populism is fundamental to understanding post-truth politics.

“The concept of truth is becoming increasingly contentious and what is true becomes essentially a matter of opinion.”

How do you see the state of democracy in Europe against the backdrop of disinformation, populist movements, and the impact of social media?

The concepts of misinformation, disinformation and post-truth politics go hand-in-hand, but post-truth politics is a much broader development in political culture. I would argue that post-truth politics is characterised by the observation that the line between fact and opinion is becoming increasingly blurry. A lot of the claims made by people that we would call post-truth populists have some factual basis, but this is often either completely one-sided, exaggerated, or a mix of fact and fiction.

The problem for democracy is how this affects the fora where we talk about politics as well as the way we talk about politics. What concerns me is that the idea of one shared communicative space in which we talk about politics is fading and that people increasingly prefer to resort to echo chambers and talk only to people who have similar views. We seem to forget that politics is also about exchanging arguments.

Regarding the role of social media, we should avoid broad claims such as social media being either ‘terrible’ or ‘fantastic’ for democracy. As Jürgen Habermas put it, the rise of social media is a revolution of a similar magnitude to the invention of the printing press: it created the conditions that allowed people to read, while the Internet has given us the tools to publish, write and disseminate our own content. The disillusionment is that people may not have understood that this comes with responsibility.

In the lead up to European Elections, how can citizens identify false information online? Is there a role for research?

This aspect is integral to our project, as it relates to issues of trust and distrust, and underlines the importance of understanding the role of mass media in a democratic society.

Citizens should be conscious of their choices when seeking information. It is important for all of us to recognise the significance of consulting diverse sources and to understand that the same issue can and should be presented from various perspectives. 

But what I find really important is to emphasise the aspect of education in all of this: we all need to have the competence to be fact checkers ourselves. In any liberal democracy, it is the role of the State to educate its citizens about their roles and responsibilities and to equip them with the tools to navigate the information landscape.  

The project addresses how citizenship education in European states is adapting to these changes. 

We are drawing attention to the problem, and I think what the European Union is doing in terms of research funding is fantastic.

How has EU funding contributed to the research carried out at RECLAIM?

Horizon Europe is designed in such a way that researchers cannot retreat to the ivory tower and simply explain processes that we find fascinating or concerning. The programme actively promotes interaction between researchers and policymakers and makes sure that research also produces policy-relevant outcomes.

Our grant covers salaries, but also finances networking and outreach activities or open access publishing, which is a highly beneficial mix. We engage with stakeholders and policymakers throughout our work, and I think what is important about projects like RECLAIM is that it gives researchers a chance to develop their networks. I am really happy with this!

Do you have a message for our audience as part of the democracy campaign?

Be aware of the fundamental role of journalism in liberal democracy. Do not buy into the fake news allegations. Cherish the fact that we still enjoy public-service media and note how important those are to democracy. Read the news, be interested in politics, do not believe everything you hear, make sure to support journalism in your area – for instance by subscribing to a newspaper of your choice. 


The views expressed in this article reflect that of the interviewee and not of the European Commission nor the European Research Executive Agency.


Publication date
17 May 2024
European Research Executive Agency