Katie Pruszynski - The anatomy of a Wedge Lie and its impact on democratic health

image of someone presenting at a political conference, EU flag in the background

About my PhD

The question at the heart of my PhD research is: would legal or professional consequences for political actors who lie to the public have a positive impact on our trust in democracy?

With surveys of public trust in political institutions continuing to demonstrate a downward trend, I believe there is a significant opportunity to rebuild that trust through establishing appropriate repercussions for misleading the public.

Whilst there is a burgeoning wealth of research into the phenomenon of “Fake News”, and its relationship to public perceptions of politics, there is a clear gap in understanding the impact of lying on public trust. Crucially there is also little robust knowledge on what might act as effective practical countermeasures to tackle it.

I want to understand if ensuring greater factual accountability for the veracity of political communication will improve our democratic health.

What made me interested in this topic

I spent five years working close to the heart of UK policymaking as the senior aide to an MP and Government Minister. Among many other things, I saw first hand how information is handled, managed and sometimes mismanaged in its journey from politicians to press to public. It was oftentimes frustrating and dispiriting, but it rarely felt dangerous until 2016 brought both the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Those two events, and the months of campaigning that preceded it, seemed to represent a tipping point, when some political actors (politicians, candidates, journalists and commentators) felt able to slip the binds of truth in their dealings with the public. I've always been fascinated by US politics and the passage of the Trump administration into the history books felt like an urgent moment to understand more deeply how lies and disinformation affect our democratic health.

What’s new about this work

How people behave in positions of political power or as members of the public engaging in politics has long been a topic of intense study. But there is a gap in our understanding of the specific consequences of lies and disinformation on our democratic health because of its impact on our ability to trust our political leaders and institutions.

There is an urgency to this work: the rapid pace of development in communication technology, and the threat it poses to the integrity of the democratic process given the continuing deterioration of public trust. Coming content developments include the widespread ability to create “deep fakes”, further threatening to disrupt digital political communications. The influence of “dark money” in politics and the media adds an additional layer of unaccountability to an already opaque system.

What impact my research could have

I hope that the impact of this PhD lies in being able to deliver original, evidence-based recommendations for practical, possibly statutory measures to establish factual accountability in political communication. 

I want my research to focus on delivering solutions, equipping key groups to improve the democratic accountability of political communication by creating additional resources, including:

  • Guidance for journalists, trainees and media owners
  • Resources for secondary school teachers and pupils on “prebunking”
  • Briefings for policymakers on statutory measures recommended to embed factual accountability in political communication  

Ultimately, I hope that my research can contribute to efforts to reverse declining faith in our political leaders, processes and institutions.

What’s most interesting to me about my work

Perhaps it goes back to my former life as a theatre director; I am fascinated by language and performance, and how that can prompt emotional responses from an audience. When you apply that same focus to politics and campaigning, you start to see how political communication is an enormously powerful tool, easily weaponised against a public already drowning in information. It's also particularly interesting to see how modern communication infrastructure (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) facilitates this slippery relationship with the truth. At the heart of the research though, is a question about how one (comparatively tiny) group of people seeks to wield power over the majority and the lengths they will go to to keep it.

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