Media, disinformation, and populism: problems and responses

Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord

Current research and debates in media, disinformation, and populism are issues central to contemporary societies and polities as well as to multidisciplinary research agendas. Media, disinformation, and populism have attracted a great deal of attention in past years. The reasons are self-evident. The digital revolution has upended old media orders, technologies, industries, access, distribution, and uses. New and sophisticated forms of disinformation flooded the global public sphere with falsehood at the same time that populist politics gained citizens’ support worldwide. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has only added to the plethora of misinformation and disinformation bombarding the public with conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and rumours propagating by the day.

As these distortions of public communication are central issues in contemporary societies, they are approached from multiple disciplinary and theoretical positions. We are interested in the way these concepts and related themes are approached by scholars who work at the intersection of journalism studies, media studies, information studies, media sociology, and political communication.

Our goal is not only to provide an overview of fundamental concepts, debates, findings, and arguments but also to foster discussions about the relationships among concepts and phenomena. Various literatures provide valuable insights about the core themes of the scope and consequences of media transformations; the scale, strategies, and effects of disinformation and misinformation; and the causes and the characteristics of populism. Despite the growing literature, lines of inquiry generally run in parallel. Few studies explore how and why media, disinformation, and populism are connected. In this chapter we seek out and discuss points of intersection.


In light of the transformations in communication and political processes, it is important to revisit the conceptual scaffolding used to study media, disinformation, and populism. These concepts have long been the subject of semantic disputes. Technological and social innovations, as well as political developments, therefore make it imperative to reassess their validity and to determine whether new concepts are required to comprehend emergent phenomena.

‘Media’ is a notoriously ambiguous, fluid concept. It was and is commonly used to refer to technologies, industries, and institutions that ‘mediate’ social interaction — that ‘assemble’ (Latour 2005) the social through symbolic exchanges. The digital revolution adds layers of conceptual complexity as it profoundly unsettles media technologies, institutions, and industries. Because contemporary life is mediated like never before in human history, ‘the media’ is a more flexible, dynamic notion.

‘The media’are not limited to the legacy industries and technologies of the golden era of the mass media and mass society in the past century. If ‘the media’ refers to what ‘mediates’ communication and interaction, then it is self-evident that the types of media are substantially broader than in the past. Among other developments, the proliferation of portable technologies and applications, the encroachment of digital media in social life, and the Internet of things reshuffled the meanings of‘the media’. ‘The media’ are understood as technologies, processes, and institutions that connect individuals, organisations, and groups in multiple ways in the network society. ‘The media’ are not unitary, homogenous, or centralised.

Conceptual pruning and clarification are essential to map the media industries, media systems, and media content, which are constantly proliferating and evolving.

‘Media industries’ is a concept in flux, due in part to the dilution of traditional boundaries between technology' and content companies. Contemporary media industries include hundreds of digital companies, together with the foundational technologies of modern society — newspapers/press, radio, film, television. A diversity of internet companies, including hardware and software companies, populate the ever-expanding media universe. Media industries encompass a larger universe than just the familiar UK’s Fleet Street, the US’s Hollywood, and Silicon Valley and other geographical metonyms.

‘Media systems’ are also more diffused and multi-layered than in the past. The geographical-political boundaries of ‘national’ media systems are destabilising due to unprecedented technological and economic globalisation. New and hybrid actors populate ‘media systems’: state, public, commercial, and ‘public/private’ platforms; civil society; radical, alternative, and open/ closed media. There is no single ‘media logic’. Consequently, multiple ‘media logics’ may be a better concept to capture the unique aspects of media platforms and institutions. Similarly, the concept of‘media content’ includes ever-multiplying forms of expression — from memes to movies, from instant messaging to social media postings. Likewise, ‘médiatisation’ is not simply a coherent, one-way process by which unique aspects of media technologies, industries, and institutions encroach upon society.

Contemporary disinformation tactics attest to the shapeshifting nature of media (Chadwick, Vaccari, & O’Loughlin 2018; Gorwa & Guilbeault 2020). In recent years, studies examined automated bots, trolls, troll farms, fake news, deepfakes, news feeds, ‘backstaging’, filter bubbles, echo chambers, synthetic media, algorithms, far/alt-right media, doxing, swatting, and other phenomena. We note here that hardly any new concepts refer to these developments as something to embrace; rather, they present a depressing picture of gloom and doom for society. This demoralising vocabulary is not only revelatory about troubling developments for public life and democracy but is also symptomatic of previous gaps in the analytical toolkit. Media and communication studies lacked the terminology to understand a slew of new media platforms and practices. Given constant media innovations, conceptual updates and repurposing become inevitable.

The lesson of the evolution of‘media’ as a concept is twofold. Existing concepts should be approached cautiously to determine their semantic validity and analytical usefulness in new scenarios. Secondly an open attitude is essential to generate concepts that capture novel initiatives and developments.

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