Alternative online political media: challenging or exacerbating populism and mis/disinformation?
Declan McDowell-Naylor, Richard Thomas, and Stephen Cushion
In this chapter, we examine the rise of new alternative online political media (AOPM) and ask whether these sites challenge or exacerbate the spread of populism and mis/disinformation. We provide a critical overview of the debates within academic literature about alternative media, populism, and mis/disinformation. Overall, we argue that while many of these debates do not represent new phenomena, there is a need to develop different ideas and questions in the context of today’s hybrid media system and AOPM’s relationship with mainstream media, populism, and mis/disinformation. Informed by relevant literature, we argue that while there are clear connections between AOPM and populism, and some evidence of misinformation, they do not feature the kind of blatant acts of disinformation often found in fake online news sites.
New phenomenon? Alternative online political media, populism, disinformation
Alternative media has long been recognised as important within political communication (Atton 2002; Couldry & Curran 2003). In particular, new social movements, and citizen and independent journalism, have attracted considerable academic attention over recent years. Amid ever-shifting media systems, contemporary forms of alternative media have emerged. These newer forms — which we term AOPM — have attempted to become legitimate sources of news and commentary and, by taking advantage of internet and social media reach, have built up varying levels of influence, sometimes exceeding that of their mainstream counterparts (Waterson 2017). Terms such as ‘alternative news media’ (Holt, et al. 2019), ‘alternative and partisan news websites’ (Newman, et al. 2019, 23), and ‘right-wing online news sites’ (Heft, et al. 2019) have appeared in recent scholarship. However, while ‘alternative media’ are not new, the wider dissemination of alternative digital news and commentary clearly represents a break from the past.
AOPM are distinguished by their digital-native (Thomas & Cushion 2019) status via websites and social media. They are characterised by strong political editorialisation of news and comment and an explicit self-identification as alternatives to mainstream media (Holt, et al. 2019, 2). Notable global publications include O Antagonista (Brazil), Breitbart News (US), Rebel News (Canada), The Canary (UK), PI News (Germany), Steigan (Norway), and New Matilda (Australia). Despite their novelty, these alternative media still fit many of the broad characteristics defining alternative media as existing outside ‘mainstream media institutions and networks’, populated by non-professionals seeking to represent marginalised interests and contest media power imbalances (Atton 2007, 18). Such characteristics have evolved, but despite some core similarities, AOPM vary in content, appearance, audience, and reach.
The often-partisan nature of AOBM is exemplified by the US site, Breitbart News. During the 2016 US presidential election for example, it was declared ‘the platform for the alt-right’ by chairman Steve Bannon (Posner 2016) and grew its audience by focusing on topics such as climate change denial and anti-immigration and anti—Democratic Party rhetoric. During the 2017 UK general election campaign, the left-wing website The Canary also attracted attention by reaching millions of people with content embracing anti-austerity, social justice, and criticism of the Conservative Party and the mainstream media (Waterson 2017).
From different political perspectives, both Breitbart News and The Canary have been accused of promoting populist ideologies and spreading disinformation. Breitbart, for example, became infamous for its propagation of the ‘Pizzagate’conspiracy (Robb 2017),1 while The Canary was admonished for publishing false accusations that BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg spoke at a Conservative Party conference (BBC News 2017)? These debates have been driven by the electoral success of populist political parties across the world and are underpinned by generally low levels of trust in news (Newman, et al. 2019; Fletcher, et al. 2018). Noppari et al. (2019), for example, found that those consuming populist ‘counter media’ in Finland were motivated by a shared mistrust of legacy journalism. Populism and disinformation are often characteristics associated with concerns about the new digital media environment, raising important questions about their relationships with alternative media. While the evidence is thin, scholars have suggested the rise of alternative media should be seen in conjunction with populist agendas developing global momentum (Heft, et al. 2019, 3—4).
Despite the simultaneous emergence of populist politics and AOPM, the latter should not be regarded as populist without empirical evidence linking the two (Heft, et al. 2019). Similarly, the connection between alternative media and mis/disinformation should also not be assumed but led by evidence (Riebling & Wense 2019). Nonetheless, campaign groups including Stop Funding Fake News and Sleeping Giants have convinced commercial organisations to withdraw advertising from Breitbart and Evolve Politics, on the basis that they promote ‘fake news’. Similarly, other alternative media have been dubbed ‘false’ news producers and ‘blacklisted’ by fact-checkers and mainstream journalists (Rone 2019).
Measuring the impact of AOPM and their potential role in propagating populism and mis/ disinformation is a complex task. Their reach should not be overstated. For example, the weekly use of UK alternative sites ranges from 1 percent to 17 percent,3 and ‘alternative and partisan sites’ reached just 6 percent of the 1,711 participants tracked during the 2019 UK general election (Fletcher, et al. 2020). Heft, et al. (2019) found varying levels of website engagement across six western democracies; in the US, four right-wing alternative sites ranked in the top 1,000 most visited websites.
AOPM’s reach is perhaps greatest across social media sites. In the UK, for example, Another Angry Voice had over 350,000 Facebook followers as of May 2020, roughly double the total for The Neiv Statesman and one-tenth the total of popular tabloid The Daily Mirror. An audience study during the 2019 UK general election campaign showed that many alternative media sites significantly increased their social media reach since the previous 2017 general election (Thomas & McDowell-Naylor 2019). Another important measure of impact is the inter-media agenda-setting effects of alt-media sites. For example, journalists such as Ash Sarkar (Novara Media) and Ben Shapiro (Breitbart) often appear on mainstream media, extending their influence beyond alternative media sites.