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I Think I've Seen This Film Before ... And I Didn't Like the Ending

June 19th 2024

Foucault’s Theory of Power describes a conceptualisation of power in which actors neither hold power, nor take it. Instead, it exists within everyday interactions and is embedded in daily life through the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

According to his theory, certain actors have the authority to determine what is considered true, facilitating a common understanding that benefits either themselves or the group they represent. In his view, power is inherently linked with truth, and he suggests that power influences what is accepted as truth as part of the way it “produces reality.”


But what happens when our collective understanding of the truth wavers? What are the consequences - during a General Election and beyond - when those who wield power present a version of the world fundamentally removed from what it is?

The seeds have been sown for this reality by a political landscape characterised in part by misrepresentation of policies from competitors and perpetuation of conspiracy theories. As an American-London transplant, it hits a bit too close to home - and I can’t help but think the UK might be on track to match the US’s descent into political detachment from truth.

A key step towards this reality is the breakdown of the communication norms that society has collectively agreed upon - a development exemplified by the endorsement of ‘alternative facts,’ as former Trump Counsellor, Kellyanne Conway would have characterised them, by senior political leaders.

Members of the Government last year announced an extraordinary lineup of policies: they pledged to stop a tax on meat, a compulsory car-sharing policy, a plan for the UK to take 100k asylum seekers, and to deliver new tram routes in Manchester and Nottingham. Unfortunately, the first three policy proposals don’t really exist, and the tram routes already do.

Already this year, research has found widespread misinformation spread by political parties on social media, on topics ranging from the performance of the economy, to Keir Starmer’s stance on abolishing the monarchy.

The US is, of course, no stranger to misinformation. There are too many examples of alternative fact promotion to choose from during the Trump administration, from lying about the size of his inauguration crowd, to claiming Russia had not interfered with the 2016 Election, to suggesting COVID-19 could be cured with bleach injections. Conspiracy theories about voter fraud implying Trump won the 2020 Election - that it was ‘stolen’ from him - continue to be embraced by millions of Americans.

Most relevant right now, and perhaps most worrying, is the promotion of misinformation to intentionally cast doubt on a state’s electoral systems, systematically lowering collective faith in national and global institutions. The UK still has a long way to go until this becomes a reality (as we speak, exceptional work is being undertaken by policymakers and industry) but we witnessed it full force in the US during the 2020 Election.

A key step in this process is the disengagement of the public with politics and the wider news ecosystem. On Tuesday, the last day to register to vote with just over two weeks to the UK General Election, there were over 4.3 million 18–24-year-olds eligible to vote but not yet registered. Apathy and detachment are on the rise among younger populations, perhaps signalling a turning point similar to the one that saw less than half of eligible under-30s vote in the 2016 US General Election.

Misinformation has been the defining factor of the past two elections and will be a key consideration in the UK’s upcoming one. But the presence of targeted campaigns to deceive voters will eventually become the norm as we adjust to life in the AI age.

As power continues to impact what is understood as the truth, we must reckon with the fact that those in power are not always in the best position to declare the truth. Research has warned that false claims that real content is AI-generated will become more persuasive over the coming years, prompting suggestions national policymakers will more frequently engage with and promote misinformation (intentionally or otherwise).

Engagement of national policymakers - whose general mandate is to maintain a grip on reality and develop policy accordingly - on the low traffic neighbourhood debate last year saw misleading statements proposed around regulators being ‘anti-motorist’ and references to 15-minute city conspiracy theories, and was recently found to have driven up engagement with disinformation narratives.

Thanks to AI, making and disseminating misinformation and disinformation is easier, faster and cheaper than ever, and the UK’s common ground in the policy agora will no doubt suffer as a result. Our conceptualisation of power will inevitably change and who we trust with power will become increasingly important, as they will become the primary producers and reproducers of knowledge.

UK political discourse is still a long way away from the slanderous, volatile, inflammatory nonsense that characterised most of the past 10 years of US politics, and blatant lies being presented as fact remains relatively rare. Perhaps who we collectively trust to decide the truth will understand the gravity of their mandate and communicate accordingly.

Only time will tell.