Future directions: integrating misinformation and media systems

There has been much debate on the merits of pursuing media system typologies or instead focusing on comparing the characteristics of similar institutions and inter-institutional relations (Humphreys 2012; Flew and Waisbord 2015). For misinformation, the latter course appears to have been favoured, although with a focus on transcultural processes and transnational institutions. The case for a media systems approach is well-made by Flew and Waisbord (2015, 632):

Media systems are points of convergence of political, economic, social, and cultural forces grounded in the local, the national, and the global.

They should be seen neither as self-contained entities nor as extensions or epiphenomena of global developments. Instead, we should think of ‘media systems’ as analytical units to understand how and where multiple dynamics intersect as well as the comparative weight of actors and institutions in shaping the media.

The ambition for a more effective analysis of misinformation and media systems will be to enhance dialogue across work centred on both, within a broader, revising approach. Here, three key areas are discussed: actors and processes, governance, and comparative normativity.

Actors and processes

Media systems research draws heavily on political science and the study of governing institutions, political actors, and parties. This is indispensable for analysis of states’ activities, from engineering and directing to combatting misinformation. The mapping of COVID responses, discussed earlier, illustrates the range well. Authoritarian-populist governments (Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Hungary) have weakened non-compliant media institutions, alongside the undermining of civil society, but have been countered more effectively in pluralist democracies (US, UK, India). More authoritarian systems have exercised command and control (Saudi Arabia, Iran, China), while corporatist democratic systems in Western Europe have exercised information management. However, for misinformation, it is vital to accommodate a much wider field of action. Around each of the main actor categories that have shaped conventional political sociology there are a plurality of actor-types and increasing blurring and hybridisation, which a synthesising media system analysis must address, including AI-generated content from private and state-sponsored bot accounts. Agencies of control over communications that need to be encompassed are state; para state actors; state media; public service media; private media publishers; platform owners and operators; civil society media/radical-alternative media; pro-am publishers; open, ‘public’ social communications; and intergroup ‘private’ communications.


In expanded form, media systems analysis is best placed to pursue connections between regulation, the role of the state, the organisation of markets, and the ever-changing institutional arrangements of media and their performance. Those are all matters that are addressed by contemporary governance analysis, conceived as encompassing ‘all the collective and organizational rules that govern the organization of media systems’ (de’Haenans et al. 2010, 132). Media governance is ‘a framework of practices, rules and institutions that set limits and give incentives for the performance of the media’ (Puppis 2010). While governance has been adopted to broaden media policy analysis, it offers a means to integrate analysis of media practices, performance, and policy. In its contemporary form, governance analysis highlights the importance of more informal processes of rule-making such as amongst professionals in networks and the ‘house rules’ of firms or teams, as well as those shaped by interacting agencies from service users to protestors and by non-human actants.

Ginosar (2013) advances the case to use governance as ‘an analytical framework for the classification and typology of communication systems’ and proposes ‘a continuum on which different such systems are placed according to their governance types’. He identifies forms of‘social control’ from liberal to authoritarian in political systems and corresponding levels of protection afforded to the ‘independence’ of journalism, acknowledging that ‘[bjetween these two distinct types, there is a variety of social control forms (governance types) that enable the existence of many types of communication systems’. However, this system-level typology' risks reproducing problems of reification that were the legacy of FTP. Rather than identify media systems with macrolevel features of governance alone, it is preferable to analyse the multidimensional forms of governance of communications and how these relate to forms of governance within the political economic system overall. Reducing governance to a singularity risks smoothing out the internal complexity and contradictions that often are the focus of critical scholarship, such as the co-existence in ‘liberal’ systems of both high ‘rational legal authority’ in regulatory proceduralism and high policy influence from commercial interests and lobbyists. Governance analysis can help bridge the national/transnational division by inviting consideration of the multiple agencies, processes, and modes of rule-making across contemporary communications.

Governmental action on misinformation is intelligible across the political system spectrum of authoritarian to democratic, subdivided into neoliberal and regulated economic systems (Curran and Park 2000). Authoritarian governments have legislated against ‘fake news’ to shore up information control, especially where media are instruments of state. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act 2017, requiring social media platforms to block ‘fake news’, hate-inciting, or illegal content, illustrates action by democratic governments within a human rights legal framework. Several authoritarian populist governments have used various tools to attempt to discipline media that operate within more pluralist and formally democratic legal-regulatory systems, such as Bolsanaro in Brazil and Orbán in Hungary.

The arguments made so far identify the need for an expansive political economic analysis conducted to incorporate socio-cultural, historical, and psycho-social dimensions. More comparative data gathering is needed before synthesising ‘system sensitive’ perspectives can be advanced, but that must be a guiding aspiration. Misinformation is most common in polarised political systems; is most prevalent among domestic political actors and supporters during electoral campaigning; and correlates with high public concern about misinformation, low trust in media, significant bypassing of professional news, and unreliable news circulation via social media (Bradshaw and Howard 2018; Fletcher et al. 2018). The key reason to integrate misinformation into media systems analysis is that identifying interconnections across ‘system’ variables is vital for analysis, evaluation, and policy proposals. That interconnectedness is demonstrated by questions concerning the degree to which resources to counter misinformation are present and effective alongside those that generate it. How is the discursive space for misinformation ordered across different systems in relation to different media channels and spaces? How is the performance of those channels shaped by governance arrangements, practices, and cultures?

In countries with strong PSM, researchers have found positive ‘spill over’ effects on private sector news journalism (Aalberg and Curran 2012). For misinformation, such interconnections need to be explored throughout communications resources and activities, within and across media systems. In a six-country study of online news diversity, Humprecht and Esser (2018) find that the UK, Germany, and France showed the greatest diversity, while the US achieved the lowest rates. They conclude that ‘media systems that financially support strong public service-oriented news outlets are most likely to create media discourses that meet the normative goal of diversity in voices, backgrounds, and perspectives’ Humprecht and Esser (2018, 1841). Yet PSM generally face falling audiences and revenue and calls from right-wing populist movements to scrap license fees.

Following Sen’s (1999) powerful linking of media, democratic rule, and the cultivation of capabilities, a compound hypothesis is that the more democratic is a media system, the more resources are available for challenging information disorder. However, to proceed, both clarity in measurement and a comparative normative approach are needed. The media systems conceptual apparatus is strongly rooted in Western liberal discourses of state ‘intervention’, media ‘independence’, and so on. The challenges include building an architecture in which normativities can be espoused yet scrutinised for their particularities and application to create a critical, reflexive discursive space that is more capable of engaging subaltern understandings (Zhao 2012). That is especially important as so much misinformation cultivates stories of imperialism and nationhood, identity, and religion and mobilises cleavages of class, race, gender, sexuality, age, political affiliation, and cultural values. Media systems analysis needs to connect with feminist, critical race, postcolonialist, and other perspectives whose insights have rarely been foregrounded, again part of the ‘stress test’ that misinformation provides.

Integrating misinformation and media systems can be organised into the six media system variables discussed earlier.

1 Media markets

Analysis of all communication channels; plurality of supply, exposure diversity, usage.

Media publishers, marketing communications, platforms, communication intermediaries, fact-checking services, automation across communications.

2 Political parallelism

Political system variables; political-media relations; political communication and information management.

3 Professionalisation (Media governance 1)

Industry regulation (self/со); professional and trade body standards; informal rule-making and behaviours across communication services and users.

4 Hole of the state [Media governance 2]

Laws and policies affecting information and communications.

5 Geocultural

Platforms; circuits of communication across affiliated communities; diasporic communications; transnational and transcultural flows; regional dynamics (supranational and subnational).

6 Media and civil society

Civic communications; protest action; education and media literacy; fact-checking.

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