What are the connective threads then among media, disinformation, and populism? We break down these relationships into two separate questions.
Media and populism
Populism always sees the media as essential political instruments to drum up support and reaffirm boundaries between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’. Contemporary populist parties and leaders maintain close relations with public and private media and regularly clash with and threaten critical media organisations. For populism, ensuring regular and unopposed media access is required for spreading messages and narratives adjusted to the views of leaders and supporters. In turn, media organisations tend to support populism based on ideological communion, economic benefits, and/or political calculations.
Does populism have an affinity with certain media? Do specific media cultivate populist politics given their target audiences, style, and formats? Do citizens who support populism have a distinctive media diet? What is the role of mainstream media in the rise and the consolidation of populism?
Despite scores of valuable national and comparative studies, there are no clear answers to these questions. There is no straightforward relation between populism and the media because there is neither a single form of populism nor a single media order. Real populisms have different relations with the media. Massive, unprecedented changes affect the relationship between populism and the media. ‘The media’ is not a seamless whole anywhere but, rather, a multilayered, crowded, and chaotic environment. Populist style, discourse, communication strategies, and policies map differently across the vast constellation of media organisations and digital spaces.
On these issues, the literature features various lines of research.
One set of studies pays attention to populism’s relationship with like-minded media organisations on the right and the left. Partisan news media offer receptive, supportive coverage which fits populism’s triumphant narratives and tirades against opponents. They also contribute to populism’s ideological content and legitimacy. Finally, these media generously provide leaders with constant acclaim and comfort. Such connections are visible in the relation between right-wing tabloids (e.g. the Daily Mail and the Sun in the UK) and populism in Europe and the ties between Fox News and Donald Trump in the United States. Recent studies also show the conservative media’s role in sowing confusion about the effects of the coronavirus: [Tjhey paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others.
Such alliances also matter because, arguably, populism thrives in endogamic media and communicative spaces where like-minded citizens find others who reaffirm their views (Gerbaudo 2018). Populism is antithetical to anything resembling communication in difference — exposure to ideas that differ and contradict official discourses. Instead, it exhibits an affinity for communication homophily. The importance of these spaces does not mean that citizens with populist preferences are sequestered in ideologically homogeneous bubbles.
Populisms chain of supportive media goes beyond legacy news organisations, including newspapers, radio, and television stations. It includes state-owned media that populism in power tightly controls as propaganda machines, as shown in the cases of Duda in Poland, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Maduro in Venezuela, and Ortega in Nicaragua. Propaganda networks also includes partisan and alternative platforms. These media platforms may not be as visible to the public eye as prominent legacy media, yet they are part of populism’s communication texture and resources. In the case of right-wing populism, this includes a string of far-right, white supremacy, anti-science, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and misogynist online sites (Haller, Holt, & de La Brosse 2019; Heft, Mayerhoffer, Reinhardt, & Kniipfer 2020).
These media provide populism not only with ideological content and legitimacy but also with platforms for reaching sympathetic audiences. They are conduits for populisms constant attacks on opponents. Unpaid and paid trolls and operatives who harass critics become accessories to the politics of fostering conflicts and intimating adversaries. In some countries, populism bankrolls both media and supportive operatives through networks of patronage and favouritism.
Further attention should also be paid to populism’s relation to social media platforms and corporations. First, the significance of specific platforms whose technological affordances fit populisms trademark communication style: leader-centred messages, personalistic appeals, the illusion of unobstructed interaction between leaders and citizens, and avoiding the press. Unquestionably, Twitter is a good match, fitting perfectly with populisms long-standing preferences for top-down, one-way public communication (Waisbord & Amado 2017). Second, social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, are central for right-wing media. Legacy news organisations such as Fox News draw significant audiences from Facebook. Also, YouTube and other platforms serves as channels for far-right and other extreme groups. Twitter makes it possible for right-wing influencers and trolls to reach large audiences and spread their messages.
A further issue to consider is populism s relation with legacy mainstream media that are not editorially aligned with its politics. This includes public service corporations and private companies that remain bounded by journalistic ideals of fairness and even-handedness. At face value, populism generally has tense and difficult relations with mainstream news organisations. Populism is permanently locked in a state of conflict with ‘the media’. Not uncommonly, populist leaders actively provoke such conflicts when they purport to get negative coverage. They are fond of accusing media critics of being producers of‘fake news’, acting as ‘enemies of the people’ and as ‘traitors’. Difficult relations with the mainstream media are not unique to populism. Yet populism is a particular case, given its anti-democratic bent.
Underlying the tense relationship is populism’s suspicion of, if not outright contempt for, speech rights and freedom of the press. Populism and democratic communication are at loggerheads. Populism’s position on media, journalism, and public communication is grounded in its distrust of liberal principles. It is predisposed against the right to speech and protections of public speech from government intervention as well as progressive principles of communication such as dialogue, pluralism, empathy, and tolerance.
Populism tends to be particularly sensitive and impatient with media reports that challenge its self-serving narratives. Leaders legitimise anti-mainstream media sentiments among ideological allies in government, business, media, and universities. Tapping into prejudice, hate, and conspiracies, they dismiss critical news as the deeds of anti-popular, anti-national interests and call on their supporters to punish media companies. In some cases, populist leaders try to weaken critical media by pressuring their owners and editors into compliance with a mix of legal and economic sticks and carrots.
It would be mistaken, however, to see the relations between populism and mainstream media in purely antagonistic terms, as populist leaders often contend. Because populism is a mass phenomenon, it requires coverage by the mainstream media (Boczkowski & Papacharissi 2018). Populism constantly craves media attention to reinforce the dominant public positions of its leaders, amplify messages, and gain visibility. Any media pulpit is critical for populist leaders. Media with large audiences are useful to reach various constituencies, win elections, and cement power.
By providing massive coverage, mainstream media are central to the ascent of populist leaders and movements. With their oversize personas, discursive styles, and colourful histories, typical populist leaders align with media interest in personalities, drama, and entertainment. Populists’ penchant for ceaseless conflict and polarisation is enormously attractive for news organisations focused on controversy, loud voices, and scandal. Populists’ frequent news-making spats with ‘the mainstream press’ might be considered shrewd ruses to reel in media attention. These present opportunities for populist leaders to dominate news cycles but also to show that the ‘elite/ establishment media’ are the enemies of the people. They function as performative instances of populism’s narrative about ‘evil media’ and popular leaders committed to scolding ‘the media’ and their allies.
Although some private media adopt critical positions vis-à-vis populism, it is not unreasonable to suggest that commercial media systems possess built-in tendencies that favour certain aspects of populism. Clearly, they do not make populism inevitable. However, some aspects of hyper-commercialised media may lay the ground for populist ideas. Widespread lack of trust in media (Park, Fisher, Flew, & Dulleck 2020) mirrors populism’s frequent tirades against media companies. Certain news biases favour populist messages — distrust of elites and experts; focus on conflict; negative portrayal of governments, politics, and politicians. Even shining examples of investigative journalism, which expose corruption and spawn scandals, may unintendedly foster anti-politics sentiments that dovetail with populism’s cynical view of democracy.
Populism, media, and disinformation
What, then, are the connections among populism, media, and disinformation?
Populism is not the only political movement that resorts to disinformation. The history of propaganda shows that governments and the powerful have tried to manipulate consciousness through disinformation. The temporal concurrence of populism and new forms of disinformation should not lead us to simplistic causal explanations.
What is truly novel? Are populism and disinformation interlocked in unique ways? Populism has an affinity with disinformation even though it is not the only political movement that resorts to disinformation.
Populism generally concentrates power in leaders who are deemed infallible. The tendency to build a leadership cult easily devolves into narratives that liberally blend facts, faux facts, proven lies, and absolute fantasies. Populism utilises disinformation because distinguishing between truth and lies is not exactly a priority. And at the same time, populisms demagogic leaders are fond of making appeals that validate existing beliefs, identities, and prejudice in order to cement popular support. Since populism believes that enemies constantly plot to bring leaders and movements down, it resorts to disinformation as a legitimate means to fight opponents. Populism tries to remain in power without regard for democratic rules and norms, contesting elections using all means possible. Erasing the distinctions between truth and fabrications and flooding public opinion with disinformation then become essential for political perpetuation. As elections are construed as vital to the future prospects of the leader, the fatherland, and the people, disinformation tactics are justified to secure victories.
In this regard, contemporary populism, especially its right-wing variant, displays a close affinity with communicative spaces and alternative media filled with disinformation and misinformation. These platforms cover and discus hot-button issues, such as immigration, white supremacy, nativism, and climate change denialism, which are at the heart of populist identities and are closely identified with right-wing and far-right groups. Conspiracy theories, absolute lies, fake news, ‘alternative’ facts, and similar informational aberrations are a common presence on these outlets. Whereas social media regularly circulate away from the attention of legacy media, they gain enormous visibility in specific circumstances, such as when powerful newsmakers spread and legitimise disinformation and hate, when sympathetic influential news organisations offer positive coverage, and when high-profile hate crimes receive broad political and media attention.
In this regard populism possesses an affinity with post-truth (Waisbord 2018). Media abundance offers an endless menu of possible information adjusted to peoples convictions and desires. Mediating institutions, including the press, which, because of their dominance, were the arbiters of‘Truth’ for the rest of society, do not occupy the same position in today’s chaotic, multi-layered media ecologies.
Truth necessitates social agreements on methods and facts to demonstrate the veracity of claims. It demands trust in the way that facts are produced, examined, and discussed. Populism, however, embraces and legitimises a state of epistemological fracture by pushing a binary view of politics, with truth belonging to its leaders and followers. In a similar vein, truth is fractured by political identities. Populism uncritically accepts the ‘truths’ of allies while it disparages the enemies as liars. ‘Our’truths are the antipode of‘their’lies. Truth encompasses ‘popular’beliefs, no matter how or whether they are proven. Populism eschews demonstrable facts and scientific rigour to reach truth. Loyalty to the leader and their policies is often sufficient to determine the truthfulness of any claim.
Populism’s claims to owning the truth lead to embracing disinformation and legitimising post-truth. It supports beliefs regardless of whether they are grounded in quality, factual, proven information. It perpetuates communities of belief that feed off and reinforce information dynamics that teem with falsehoods. It weaponises cognitive biases in support of disinformation and hate.