As pointed to by the other articles within this special section, fractious debates have emerged about the relationship between Science and Technology Studies (STS), post-truth (and indeed post-Trump) politics. These debates often centre on the question of whether STS has inadvertently provided tools for conspiracy theorists and sceptics, as well as contributed to a broader political culture where facts are can be easily undermined (with politically, socially, and environmentally disastrous consequences). As outlined elsewhere in these articles, academics working within STS have sought to counter what they perceive to be mischaracterisations of the field, or at least to complicate its links with post-truth. Yet, although these broad debates about the culpability of STS are important, it needs to be recognised that some of the harshest criticisms have not been levelled at STS in general but towards feminist and postcolonial perspectives in particular.
In his focus piece for this this special section, for instance, Des Fitzgerald sets out several pieces of work as touchstones, all of which helpfully illustrate the typical sorts of criticism that have been levelled at sociological studies of science. Perhaps more than any other figure, Kenan Malik crystallises these concerns, in arguing that postmodern cultural theory has resulted in the widespread acceptance of an ‘epistemic relativism’ that reflects:
…a hostility to the Enlightenment project of creating a universal outlook from fragmented experiences, of giving coherence to our observations of the social and natural world. Since no human possesses a ‘God’s eye’ view, postmodernists argue, so every human can speak only from within a particular perspective, a perspective informed by specific experience, culture and identity. ‘Truth’ is necessarily local, and specific to particular communities or cultures.
This relativism, Malik suggests, has created fertile ground for the sort of narratives espoused by the Trump campaign, wherein all truths (even those as seemingly commonsensical as the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd) are treated as being open to interpretation. It is important to note, however, whose work Malik draws upon to illustrate the type of perspective he sees as problematic. To make his point, he cites feminist scholar Sandra Harding, particularly her argument that: ‘All knowledge systems, including those of modern science, are local ones.’ Criticism of Harding, then, underpins Malik’s argument that ‘the acceptance of such views has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of identity politics.’
Malik’s arguments are useful to touch on not because they are exceptional – indeed my intention is not to unfairly single out his concerns – but because they bear close resemblance to broader commentaries about contemporary politics. Within the media, as well as in prominent political communities and certain academic circles, for instance, similar connections have been made between postmodernism, identity politics and post-truth. Uday Jain provides a helpful overview of this line of debate. Jain describes how class-based politics (which is argued to be integral to sustained political change) is regularly depicted as being undermined by the ‘narrower’ interests of other political movements. These movements are then grouped together under the derisory label of ‘identity politics’, and seen as not only an impediment to progressive politics but (resonating with Malik’s arguments) as actively contributing to a culture suspicious of singular ‘truths’:
In this story, somehow simultaneously, Stuart Hall, Selma James, Silvia Federici, Robin D. G. Kelley, Judith Butler, and scores of other leading Leftists around the world nefariously invented post-modernism to fit the ideological requirements of neoliberalism and thus convinced their many students to stop fighting capital and instead take up fighting endless social media wars about culture and popular representations of identity.
Jain and others have helpfully unpicked such narratives, by drawing attention to the vital contributions of feminist, Black, and indigenous movements to class-based resistance. Ignoring these contributions does not just erase important intellectual and political histories, but is a political step backwards in suggesting that the experiences, voices and contributions of particular communities are a distraction to leftist political projects.
These broader criticisms of ‘identity politics’ illustrate what is at stake politically within debates that have emerged in the context of science studies. Aside from the (often inaccurate) conflation of postmodernism, identity politics, and STS, the specific criticisms that have been levelled at feminist approaches are concerning because those approaches offer important tools for understanding what post-truth actually means and how it works.
To simplify a very diverse body of academic work, which is characterised by lively debates, one of the important insights this research offers is that technologies are never neutral but are tangled up with particular social relations. Within this broad frame, feminist science studies has then asked very specific questions about the relationship between technology and power, such as how particular technologies might relate to or reinforce social relations (of class, race and gender, for instance), and who benefits from these relations. This approach is especially useful for reflecting on factors that are often seen as contributing to ‘post-truth’, such as the role of social media. Let me illustrate this with two examples from collaborative projects that I am currently engaged in.
The first project, with Sarah-Nicole Aghassi-Isfahani, has explored the role of internet memes in perpetuating particular political narratives. As Sophia McLennan argues, even though these memes often appear to be playful and humorous, they nonetheless play a significant role in reinforcing extreme-right narratives. One of the memes we are looking at involved a series of images that emerged in 2016, after Hillary Clinton left the 9/11 memorial early due to illness, which were labelled using the hashtags #hillaryshealth or #weekendathillarys. These images not only speculated about Clinton’s ill-health but suggested that this made her an inappropriate presidential candidate. This narrative remained unshaken even after Clinton’s campaign released her medical records in order to counter allegations.
While it might be easy to blame ‘postmodernism’ or ‘epistemic relativism’ for apparent public suspicion of medical ‘facts’, this explanation is overly-neat and does little to meaningfully engage with the social complexity of what is happening. A more helpful approach can be offered by focusing on the processes through which particular truths are constructed, reinforced and recirculated within online communities. As Ange-Marie Hancock states in her commentary about representations of Clinton, memes focused on #hillaryshealth need to be situated in relation to longstanding media discourses of feminine ‘frailty’, and as part of a longstanding tendency within the media to focus on women’s appearance, personality and family life (as opposed to policy). Individualistic discourses of health are also prominent in these memes, which attribute blame for ill-health on the individual and frame it as a personal failing – discourses that have long existed in the mainstream media. The relation between ‘fake-news’ and pre-existing narratives about gender and healthcare – narratives that have become so ingrained they appear to be common sense – is what makes post-truth ‘facts’ so difficult to dislodge.
This line of argument is pushed further by my second example, a project examining the circulation and contestation of online hate speech, with colleagues Elizabeth Poole, Ed de Quincey, and our Research Assistant, Mohammed Al-Janabi. With the support of the British Academy and The Leverhulme Trust, we were able to collect and analyse a set of Islamophobic tweets that emerged after the Brussels attacks in March 2016. The hashtag #stopislam trended on Twitter after the attacks but, as a number of national and international news outlets noted at the time, many individuals and institutions were not using the hashtag to spread hate-speech, but instead countering its original sentiment with messages of solidarity and support.
The positive picture presented in the media has been partially borne out by our own exploration of the hashtag’s emergence and circulation. However, other findings have offered a more troubling picture. Although our analysis is still at preliminary stages, an initial finding is that those using the hashtag to disseminate negative messages were predominantly tightly-knit circles of self-identified conservative individuals, based in the US. These groups appear to regularly perpetuate ideologically-driven claims about geopolitical events and religious practices, which then circulate as undisputed ‘facts’ within social media networks.
A small number of users seem to play an especially important role in these networks. These users present themselves as having particular forms of academic expertise (such as doctorates or publications). It is this expertise that gives the arguments they put forward the credibility and authority required for their statements to become accepted as ‘fact’. Again, to get to grips with what is happening in this situation, the longstanding tools offered by feminist studies of science are useful, especially the careful attention this work has played to how particular forms of expertise are constructed and recognised as culturally legitimate. Such approaches provide important insights about how particular technologies can reinforce the value of certain forms of expertise and undermine the importance of others.
While the above points are only simple observations about each project, they nonetheless serve to underline the value of basic insights offered by STS, and feminist STS in particular. In addition, to go back to the issues summarised by Jain, it is critical and urgent to respond to the strategies of extreme-right groups. Rushing to blame ‘epistemic relativism’, by jumbling it together with questions of identity, is a worrying move when particular communities and identities are precisely what are under attack within ‘post-truth’ narratives.
Hancock A-M. 2016. Questions About Hillary Clinton’s Health are Soaked in Gender Bias. The Hill.
Jain, U. 2017. White Marxism: A Critique of Jacobin Magazine. New Socialist.
McLennan, S. 2017. Forget Fake News – Alt-Right Memes Could do More Damage to Democracy. Salon.
Malik K., 2017. Not post-truth as too many truths. Pandaemonium.
Willey A. 2016. A world of materialisms: postcolonial feminist science studies and the new natural. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41(6): 991-1014.
Eva Giroud is lecturer in Media, Communications and Culture at Keele University.
Image: Thomas Guest CC BY 2.0