Key concepts (Part I)

The first part of the Companion comprises chapters on key concepts in the study of misinformation, disinformation and populism. They provide important and valuable insights for building and refining theory in these areas. Misinformation, disinformation and populism are rich subjects of inquiry in many disciplines, and the place of media provides an opportunity both to examine and to deploy broad concepts and theories to understand the dynamics between them.

Carlos de la Torre (Chapter 2) opens this part by asking ‘What do we mean by populism?’ He identifies four conceptualisations which are prominent nowadays: namely, a set of ideas, a political strategy, a political style, and a political logic. He traces the history of the way sociologists and historians have adopted both the concept and the ideal types with accompanying attributes. He discusses the strategies used by populists to gain and maintain power and then examines their use and abuse of media, demonstrating how some populist leaders are media innovators. Rachel Armitage and Cristian Vaccari (Chapter 3) provide an insight into media use by populists and others by presenting an overview of the main debates about misinformation and disinformation within a political communication context. They demonstrate how mis/disinformation has gained prominence in public discourse, together with the denigration of experts and independent journalists; all this at the expense of evidence-based debate and a subsequent decline in trust of the mainstream media and news organisations. All these developments have been accelerated by social media. They presage the chapters in Part V of the Companion by briefly discussing some of the possible solutions to counteract the phenomena of mis/disinformation. Daniel C. Hallin (Chapter 4) continues the theme of populist leaders use of the media. He argues that médiatisation requires a rethink as contemporary mediatised populist politics as exhibited by Donald Trump does not fit well into the traditional narrative about the médiatisation of politics. Hallin argues that we need to think comparatively about its varying, changing forms. He concludes the chapter by providing five points regarding the reconceptualisation of médiatisation. Jonathan Hardy (Chapter 5) analyses how misinformation provides what he terms ‘a form of stress testing of media systems analysis’. He focuses on nation-centrism, digital communications, and normativity, all elements in questioning features of ‘system-ness’ as areas of critique most relevant to the analysis of misinformation. Hardy shows how misinformation poses various challenges to media systems analysis: namely, ‘the handling of transnational and transcultural, the range and complexity of digital communications, the multiplicity of actors and processes’.

Sarah Oates (Chapter 6) examines how another ‘old’ concept — in this case, propaganda — can be located in the digital age. She shows ‘how the democratizing effect of online information to create informed citizens is outmatched by the internet’s ability to leverage misinformation in the service of populist propaganda’. Using the cases of Trump’s election and Russian interference in the campaign, Oates argues that free speech and fairness are put at a disadvantage in the online ‘rewired’ propaganda war, giving populist actors more success than traditional political parties. Cherian George (Chapter 7) maintains the propaganda theme by analysing the use of hate propaganda. He shows how hate studies have a long pedigree and hate propaganda, sometimes called hate speech, has been around a lot longer ‘than the digitally-assisted misinformation that has triggered concern in recent years’. Hate propagandists, whether repressive governments or organised hate groups, are able to dodge attempts at censorship and regulation on social media, thereby stifling the voices of their ideological enemies. He argues that it is important to understand (and, therefore, to counter the fact) that hate campaigns are layered, distributed, and strategic. Judith Moller (Chapter 8) traces the history and meaning of the terms filter bubble and echo chamber, emphasising that the concepts describe a state rather than a process. While both are described as enclosed spaces, ‘the metaphor of the echo chamber focuses on the nature of what is inside this space while the metaphor of the filter bubbles emphasises what constitutes its boundaries: the filtering algorithms’. Moller illustrates the mismatch of theoretical and empirical research on these subjects, suggesting this may be due to the lack of normative research and hence pointing to directions for future research. Susana Salgado (Chapter 9) assesses the major conceptual debates regarding post-truth politics. By interpreting post-truth politics in the context of post-post-modernism, she shows how populism reshapes boundaries in political discourse. In contrast digital media and technologies create favourable conditions for the spread of all kinds of alternative narratives. To combat mis/disinformation Salgado calls for action to ensure social media are compatible with democratic values. The theme of post-truth is continued by Edson C. Tandoc (Chapter 10), who looks at the phenomenon of fake news. He shows how its resurgence as a term arose in the 2016 US presidential election, with subsequent scholarly attention. There are two main components of the term defined in communication studies — namely, the level of facticity and the main intention behind the message. Whilst fake news may be categorised as a form of disinformation, its subsequent spread via social media may be unintentional. Whilst fake news can spread like a virus and continue to evolve, the means to counteract it becomes ever more difficult.

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