Media and populism (Part IV)

Part IV presents a selection of studies that explore the linkages between media and populism around news coverage of particular political events in different contexts. How do the news media report within a populist milieu in different cultures, and how accurate and consistent is the coverage? The part begins with Bruce Mutsvairo and Susana Salgado (Chapter 31), who look at the rise of populism in Africa, highlighting its initial linkages to anti-colonial politics and its later manifestation as a response to governments that had become detached from the population. They examine four cases in which political leaders have emerged using populist rhetoric and the discourse of the logic of the enemy of the people to gain power. This is often followed by creating or maintaining repressive media laws and regulations to dispel dissent and counter alternative voices who may threaten their power and status. The focus shifts to North America, where Chris Wells and Alex Rochefort (Chapter 32) demonstrate that the tendencies towards populism and susceptibility to misinformation are long-standing characteristic aspects of American political culture. They show that the US is especially susceptible to populist currents. It assumes prominence in contexts in which democratic legitimacy is called into question. The growth in social media in relentlessly re-articulating underlying resentments and supplying endless resentful interpretations of current events is a permutation of misinformation the US has not seen before, and, they argue, it poses a grave threat to democratic culture. Ignacio Siles, Larissa Tristan, and Carolina Carazo (Chapter 33) examine the role of social media platforms in shaping populism and issues of misinformation in Latin America. They argue that a consideration of the ‘elective affinity’ between post-truth and populism in the case of Latin America requires assessing the significance of religion and its associated forms of polarisation and messianic authority. Framing religion helps explain the particular manifestations that this link has acquired in Latin America over the past years. Recent presidential campaigns in various countries show how this tripartite affinity has manifested in the parallel dissemination of particular kinds of content, served as a platform for the rise of populist political/religious figures, and shaped the outcome of electoral processes.

The following three chapters look at the media and populism in Europe. Michael Ham-eleers and Claes deVreese (Chapter 34) provide a conceptualisation and evidence from a study of ten European countries. They argue that it is crucial to explore the extent to which news consumers actually trust the media and whether they perceive a crisis of accuracy and honesty in the news to which they are exposed. Mis/disinformation may thus correspond to societal developments beyond the lack of facticity and honesty of information and can spill over into demand-side evaluations of the media’s accuracy and honesty. From their analysis, they confirm that most citizens can distinguish misinformation from disinformation. However, there is strong between-country variation, with news consumers in Western and Northern European countries more likely to trust the accuracy of journalistic reporting and less likely to doubt the honesty of the media elites. In contrast citizens in Eastern and Southern European countries are more likely to have strong perceptions of mis- and disinformation. Karina Horsti and Tuija Saresma (Chapter 35), using the case of Finland, examine the role of social media in the emergence of a right-wing populist movement and its transformation into a political force. They emphasise how the new multi-platform media ecology, together with its decentralised anonymous online spaces, enables political mobilisation to flourish as a precursor to electoral success for right-wing populist parties. Alongside this media system of ‘connectivities’, the emergence of transnationally widely spread ideologies of Islamophobia and misogyny (see also Chapters 19, 20, and 21) helps to cement the populist movement. In a similar vein, Bilge Yesil (Chapter 36) considers Turkey as a case study to explore the linkages between the structural conditions of the Turkish media system and the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) manipulation of social media through the proliferating of falsehoods and conspiracies. She shows how social media, like the mainstream media, is partisan and polarised as groups affiliated with the AKP harass and silence dissent on Twitter and Facebook, overwhelming these sites with government narratives. The ruling party’s digital surveillance schemes and heavy use of legal provisions to prosecute its critics make social media sites especially vulnerable to the effects mis/disinformation campaigns. The possibility of Turkey joining the European Union became an important disinformation issue in the United Kingdom Brexit referendum. Glenda Cooper (Chapter 37) examines how populist rhetoric and media manipulation was incorporated into the 2016 campaign. Whilst research on referenda is very limited, with an emphasis on whether the media reporting is balanced and fair, she argues that it news media follow the populist narrative, even while challenging and debunking misinformation, this can end up shaping public reaction. Turkey became a useful conduit to combine EU migration and the refugee crisis in voters’ minds. The Leave campaign’s use of populist rhetoric, unchallenged for many years, combined with misinformation, managed to overcome the supposed advantage of Remain.

Des Freedman (Chapter 38) reflects on the implication for media systems of conceptions of populism as a threat to reason and social order as well as to consensual and ‘objective’journalism. He argues that from the perspective of traditional liberal democratic politics, populism and its mediated forms can be seen as examples of‘policy failure’, four of which he identifies: namely, failure to tackle concentrated ownership, to regulate tech companies, to safeguard an effective fourth estate, and to nurture independent public service media. He concludes that existing liberal democratic approaches to media policy have fostered highly unequal and distorted communication systems that have been exploited by forces on the far right. In the final piece in this part, William H. Dutton and Craig T. Robertson (Chapter 39) present the results of their surveys of internet users in seven developed nations indicating that populism is indeed prominent as conventionally defined, making it difficult to view these beliefs as extreme in the contemporary digital age. Interestingly they find that those who hold populist attitudes are no more likely to be trapped in filter bubbles or echo chambers than are other internet users. Instead, they are more politically engaged and actively seek out sources of information about politics. The results lead Dutton and Robertson to speculate on alternative perspectives on populism, such as the rise of a sense of citizen empowerment and the polarisation of political communication in the digital age.

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