’Anecdotes aren’t as harmless as people think they are.’

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Literary scholar  Lea Liese (Photo: zvg)
Literary scholar Lea Liese (Photo: zvg)
Switzerland’s federal elections are taking place this weekend. Who will prove most successful at mobilizing voters? Anecdotes are a popular way to achieve this. Literary scholar Lea Liese studies the use of these short narratives in politics. Though they may seem harmless, they can have explosive power.

Ms. Liese, we all like little stories. Is that why anecdotes have proven so successful in politics?

Yes, I think so. Historically, anecdotes were initially not regarded as a literary genre, but rather as an easily accessible form of knowledge transference. This "social" knowledge helps to create community, leading to a sense of security and the ability to take action. Anecdotes help us to keep talking even when we don’t know the precise facts. For example, when you complain that everything is always getting more expensive, probably everyone can chime in from their own personal experience or at least knows a little story from hearsay. Harnessing that is very attractive for politicians. They just have to get it started and then the discourse almost runs by itself.

Is there a surge in anecdotes during election season?

Anecdotes are a very effective means of mobilizing voters. This has a lot to do with the attention economy: the parties are competing against each other and they have only a short time to win over voters.

Anecdotal evidence in the sense of "felt" truth is also an easy way to paper over any holes in one’s own agenda. This shows the populist potential of anecdotes. Especially in election campaigns, the strategic use of small, supposedly true stories can contribute to the spread of disinformation and fake news.

Speaking of populist potential: do right-wing parties make more frequent use of anecdotes than the left?

There probably isn’t a single politician who has not tried to manufacture accessibility with a personal anecdote. However, I do believe that there is greater potential for anecdotes to be used in an abusive manner by right-wing parties. For an essay, I looked at how closely anecdotal stories are connected to conspiracy theories, and I specifically examined plenary speeches in the German Bundestag, especially those given by members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. I noticed that there is a very close relationship between thinking influenced by conspiracy theories and the anecdotes that are told. An important factor is whether these "hearsay stories" are used strategically. This can be seen in their repetition: some politicians tell the same stories over and over again.

One might ask whether certain things happen as frequently as they are retold. Certain stereotypes keep cropping up, too: the poor old lady who can’t pay her heating bill anymore, for example. Historically, the anecdote was a kind of counter-narrative - a way of contradicting the official story. That’s why anecdotes can also be regarded as a kind of guerrilla tactic. This supposed subversive character of the anecdote is very popular among right-wing populist parties. They like to flatter themselves that they "tell it like it is."

You say that anecdotes can be politically explosive. What do you mean by that?

The thing that makes them most politically explosive, in my opinion, is the fact that anecdotes are hard to recognize as political propaganda. We think of anecdotes as harmless, positive, inclusive. The way they connect us is also a factor. You can participate in the conversation without having to know any of the actual facts or even being able to prove that any such thing ever happened. Anecdotes also work very well in the media, of course. They are short and concise and play on existing plots and stereotypes. This all makes it very difficult to recognize what the speaker’s real intent is. A person who strategically introduces anecdotal evidence like "my nephew is being forced by the university to use inclusive language" can wait and see what happens when the discourse gets started. It may end with something like, "if that’s what everyone says, it must be true."

Do anecdotes contain a certain element of self-fulfilling prophecy?

I would support the thesis that the constant fiery discourse changes peoples’ perceptions, leading them to believe to some extent that there is no such thing as empirical fact.

If I hear something over and over again, it makes me vigilant, too. And I feel like I need to act on what I have heard and deal with it. Many people are simply overburdened by the multiple crises of our time. Anecdotes, on the other hand, simplify complex problems and they provide a clear plan of action.

How can we avoid confusing anecdotal evidence with facts?

If a politician tells an anecdote, I would remain skeptical at first and closely watch to see whether some patterns repeat - for example stereotypes and demonized opponents - and what debates are presumably to be triggered in this way. So political contextualization is important; anecdotal evidence does not emerge in a vacuum. I also think it’s important to be aware that anecdotes aren’t as harmless as people think they are. It is also not as inclusive as we sometimes assume, as there will always be people who don’t know what’s being discussed but who are being talked about.

Original publication

Lea Liese Mediologie der Anekdote. Politisches Erzählen zwischen Romantik und Restauration (Kleist, Arnim, Brentano, Müller)
De Gruyter (2023), doi: 10.1515/9783111017464



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