Conceptualising alternative online political media

There are many long-standing conceptualisations of alternative media (see Holt, et al. 2019). Terms include ‘hyper-partisan news outlets’ (Marwick & Lewis 2017), ‘Facebook-empowered hyperpartisan political clickbait sites’ (Faris, et al. 2017, 19), and ‘alternative and partisan news websites’ (Newman, et al. 2019, 23). Holt et al. (2019, 3) argue that AOPM are characterised by ‘a proclaimed and/or (self-)perceived corrective, opposing the overall tendency of public discourse emanating from what is perceived as the dominant mainstream media in a given system’. Additionally, ideological definitions such as ‘right-wing online news sites’ (Heft, et al. 2019) often refer to anti-immigrant and conservative outlets. Terms such as ‘populist counter media’ have also been used as it is claimed that they better capture the specifics of alternative media in a national context (Noppari, et al. 2019). The common feature among these definitions is the centrality of digital news and commentary. While alternative media research may have previously encompassed media characterised as ‘radical . . . autonomous, activist, independent, participatory and community’ (Rauch 2016, 757), contemporary research has more specifically focused on journalism. As a result, conceptual understandings of AOPM are already connected to current debates and concerns about the value and function of journalism (Pickard 2019), of which populism (Hameleers, et al. 2018) and disinformation (Chadwick, et al. 2018) are at the forefront.

Long-standing conceptual debates fundamentally ask how alternative media are understood in relation to legacy/mainstream media. Earlier studies of alternative media applied conceptual frameworks relying on simplistic binary models, but since then, these models have developed into more complicated frameworks embracing hybridity. Within the earlier binary models, for example, alternative media were often understood as progressive and democratic, closely tied to social movements and working in opposition to elitist, monetised, and homogeneous mainstream media (Holt, et al. 2019). However, it has been increasingly recognised that both alternative and mainstream media are more heterogenous than their previous generations. Atton (2002), for example, argues that alternative media are not intrinsically connected to social movements while Harcup (2005, 370) believes that the conceptual relationship between the two can be understood as a continuum on which people, ideas, and practices move bidirectionally.

These conceptual turns to hybridity have carried through to contemporary conceptual thinking. Hackett and Gurleyen (2015), for example, strongly advocate a continuum model while, more recently, Holt, et al. (2019, 3) propose a ‘relational, multi-level’ model in which content, organisational structure, and the overall function of alternative and mainstream media form multi-layered continuums. Of course, these important developments also fit within broader understanding notions of a hybrid media system (Chadwick 2017). Key changes in alternative media are likely driven by this ‘overall hybridisation of media systems’ (Holt, et al. 2019, 7; see also Robertson and Mourao 2020, 17).

Finally, criticism of the mainstream media is another defining aspect of AOPM. Indeed, the stated objectives of many sites is to challenge mainstream media orthodoxy. The Canary (2020), for example, propose a ‘truly independent and viable alternative’ to largely ‘conservative’ coverage. In Germany, Politically Incorrect News (2020) claim that ‘political correctness and goodwill dominate the media everywhere today’ and that the ‘fundamental right to freedom of expression and information’ should be insisted on. Australian site New Matilda (2020) asserts that amid ‘shrinking media diversity’, ‘fewer and fewer outlets’ publish ‘independent-minded’ journalism. Finally, Rebel News (2020) in Canada claims to tell ‘the other side of the story’, even if it does not align with ‘the official narrative of the establishment’.

In this regard, AOPM can be conceptualised as a ‘self-perceived corrective’ of ‘legacy’ or ‘mainstream’ news media (Holt, et al. 2019, 3). This performative role often includes claims that the MSM is lying to defend the establishment or that it is biased against particular politicians. It might also be accompanied by a reframing of events with some form of the ‘truth’ (Robertson & Mourao 2020, 12). Such conceptual understandings of AOPM’s corrective role embrace a more fundamental struggle to define ‘the truth’ (see Riebling & Wense 2019) and contest general debates about journalistic truth, legitimacy, and trust related to populism and disinformation (Pickard 2019). Studies of alternative media in the UK have shown that the MSM generally and public service media specifically have been the objects of most criticism between 2015 and 2019, with their news reporting under constant surveillance from sites such as Evolve Politics and The Canary (Cushion 2020).

 
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