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Has the world gone mad? Stockholm University’s experts weigh in

This content was paid for by an advertiser and produced by The Local's Creative Studio

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Has the world gone mad? Stockholm University’s experts weigh in
Photo credit: Unsplash
This content was paid for by an advertiser and produced by The Local's Creative Studio
05:20 CET+01:00
Populism, fake news, cybercrime and climate change. Just four of many anxiety-inducing terms that dominate the daily news.

If you’re worried about the state of the world, you’re not alone. To make sense of it all, The Local turned to the experts at Stockholm University and asked them to weigh in on some of today’s most talked-about topics.

‘We are not approaching the end of this’

Populism may be this decade’s political buzzword but it’s far from a new phenomenon.

Political scientist Ludvig Norman explains that the definition of populism is the idea that there are two groups who are at odds with one another: ordinary citizens who see themselves as ‘the real people’ and the governing elite.

“Populism tries to pin down specifically who belongs to the people and who does not. It turns on this very antagonistic relationship between ‘the real people’ and the elite. Most of these populist parties have this type of rhetoric,” explains Norman, who works in Stockholm University’s Department of Political Science.

Photo: Ludvig Norman, Stockholm University

Find out more about studying at Stockholm University

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this probably all sounds quite familiar. From Trump, Brazil and Brexit to Hungary, Poland and Italy, right-wing populism particularly seems to be mounting around the world.

“We are seeing a rise in populism,” says Norman. “It’s impossible to argue against that. Donald Trump and his government is a prime example of this but we also see this type of party has emerged and become stronger in almost every European country as well recently.”

The question is: why now?

One of the more established perspectives explaining the shift is that supporters of populism are often those who have not profited from the economic growth of globalisation, a resentment easily exploited by politicians.

Another theory is that it’s generational: certain groups in society who once enjoyed higher status now feel they are losing out and the values that were previously important no longer matter.

“I think a reasonable way to explain these developments is some combination where you have growing inequality on one side but also clashes of traditional values with a society that is embracing more liberal values,” says Norman.

Brexit and Trump, he says, are examples of this nostalgia attached to the populist wave.

“It was clear in relation to Brexit. There were interviews with people on the street who supported Brexit and they were talking about the closing of the coal mines as if it had anything to do with the EU. It was nostalgia for a time and place that had come and gone.”

Norman believes that we will see a culmination of this current wave of right-wing populism but it won't be anytime soon.

“I think we are not approaching the end of this and we need to prepare ourselves that these parties will become a fixture in politics for the foreseeable future.”

‘There are no ‘alternative facts’’

First used on January 22, 2017, by White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, ‘alternative facts’ has become a catch-all phrase that describes the intentional spread of disinformation.

“It’s extremely dangerous,” warns theoretical philosopher Åsa Wikforss, a professor in Stockholm University's Department of Philosophy. “If you look at all authoritarian regimes, they begin by undermining trust in trustworthy sources. Otherwise, they are beleaguered or get all this evidence against what they are trying to push.”

Photo: Åsa Wikforss, Stockholm University

While it may seem incredulous that anyone could even entertain an ‘alternative fact’, Wikforss says there is some rationale to it. She explains that when the ‘alternative fact’ fits in neatly with the worldview a person already has, accepting it comes naturally.

“If you have a skewed worldview to begin with and that can be for all sorts of reasons like where you grew up, your school or family, and something comes in that fits that worldview it will seem right or rational to accept it.”

She adds that there is a phenomenon psychologists call ‘motivated thinking’, when people believe what they want to believe rather than what they have good reason to believe. It’s something that can happen to anyone who holds a certain belief that is important to them.

Find out more about Stockholm University's Department of Philosophy

Often this is harmless, like the tone-deaf singing competition contestant who believes they are a vocal virtuoso. Then there are those who choose to believe an 'alternative fact' because it is central to their group, identity, or where they feel they belong.

“If fake news fits in with what your group believes, there is a great danger you will immediately believe it. That’s what we call politically-motivated thinking,” says Wikforss.

For whatever reason people choose to believe ‘alternative facts’, there is a commonality. They are often unwilling to accept established knowledge that challenges their belief.

This can be down to a strong desire to hold onto the belief because there’s a reason it’s important to you. It can be hard to do that, however, when sensory evidence points to the contrary. For example, if someone really wants to believe it is sunny outside but can clearly see it is raining.

When evidence is presented by other people it’s easy to discredit it. Conspiracy theories help people to protect their beliefs, such as claiming climate researchers just want more money for research or journalists have a political agenda.

Wikforss says that people shouldn’t trust experts or journalists because they are brilliant minds, but because there are internal mechanisms such as peer review to check for bias or error.

“There are these mechanisms for fact checking and we should be informing people about that,” she says.

But what to those who argue there are two sides to every story, so why should that not apply to facts?

“There are no ‘alternative facts’!”, Wikforss says categorically. “We should be open to evidence that goes against our beliefs. But when it’s not evidence, when it’s just disinformation, then you shouldn’t be open to it.”

‘A poisonous cybersecurity cocktail’

From the compromised privacy of practically everyone with an internet connection to the risk of shutting down entire countries, cyberattacks are one of today's most imminent threats.

The good news is, says Stockholm University’s Associate Professor Fredrik Blix, who specialises in information security, we aren’t facing a crisis in terms of cyberattacks just yet. The not-so-good news is that doesn’t mean we aren’t headed in that direction.

Find out more about Stockholm University's Department of Computer and Systems Sciences

Photo: Fredrik Blix, Stockholm University

“The problem is that our modern society is dependent on IT systems to function. Without IT systems secure enough to withstand cyberattacks, you may end up without water in the tap or electricity in your house. This dependency, combined with sometimes sloppy cybersecurity at companies and government agencies, and an increased interest from attackers, has created a poisonous cybersecurity cocktail.”

He notes that while we are not there yet it is likely that even a country like Sweden is vulnerable to a cyberattack with severe consequences in the coming years.

So what can the average person do now to protect themselves?

Think resilience, says Blix, who is one of the university’s senior advisors on cybersecurity issues.

“Figure out how you would do without local transportation, electronic payment systems, heating, electricity, and so on.”

If this preparation all sounds a bit apocalyptic, he says there are simple everyday steps you can take too: don’t click on that dodgy-looking link and keep your computer and phone up to date.

‘Your influence as an individual might be greater than you think’

The earth’s climate has always been in flux with most of historic changes resulting from natural processes. So why should we worry now?

Because global warming is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. There is also over a 95 percent probability that the current climate change is anthropogenic. That means it’s caused by people, folks.

Photo: Erik Angner, Stockholm University

Consumerism and climate change are intricately connected. Consumption, that is the purchase and use of goods or services, produces much of the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming.

You can lay out the facts and statistics, says Stockholm University’s Erik Angner, Professor of Practical Philosophy, but that’s not normally what makes people change their habits.

“We have this picture of human beings as broadly rational and responding to evidence but the fact is that’s not what determines behaviour,” Angner told The Local.

But all is not lost. There are contexts in which people sometimes change very quickly, for example with fashion or food trends. The question is how to effect that sort of change when it comes to consumption patterns, such as getting people to travel long-haul less frequently or to buy second-hand clothes instead of fast fashion.

One answer, says Angner, could be as simple as getting the influencers onboard. How very 2019.

“The best way to change people’s behavior is to change other people’s behavior. Often you see a small number of people who others look up to who have disproportionate influence on people’s choices. So one question becomes, ‘Who are the people who decide what the fashion will be?’ And can we get that person to encourage us to consume more responsibly?”

If consumers changed their habits, he explains, companies would have to quickly follow suit.

“Brands are sensitive to your attitudes. They have to be because if a brand is cool or not can make or break the entire business plan. When attitudes shift and consumption patterns shift there are so many companies that don’t want to be left behind.”

Angner says that although the change may seem daunting at first, in the long run most people will be pleased with their modified habits.

“The fact that we lead certain kinds of lives now, that we have certain consumption patterns, doesn’t mean that harmful behaviour is cast in stone. People do change and when they do they often end up being quite happy with the result.”

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Stockholm University.

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