Discussing the evidence base
But what empirical evidence exists to link AOPM with mis/disinformation and populism? Is there evidence of AOPM contributing to — or challenging — mis/disinformation online or supporting populist politics? At present, while there is some evidence that empirically connects AOPM to mis/disinformation or populism, in our view more research is needed to draw clearer conclusions.
For several reasons, many observers consider AOPM sites to be a source of both populist ideologies and disinformation. First, since many AOPM sites are created by non-professionals, there is often an assumption they will not follow professional journalistic standards, such as objectivity. Second, because they are generally partisan, it might be also assumed they promote ‘fake news’in pursuit of their editorial/ideological missions. Third, their critiques of mainstream media and the ‘establishment at large’ echo common populist tropes, which in turn means we may form connections between these critiques and populist politicians such as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, who have promised to ‘take on the establishment’.
These points may have been aided by some of the prominent examples of disinformation previously explored. While often these assumptions may well be correct, as Noppari et al. (2019, 23) caution, populist victories, ‘fake news’, and the proliferation of alternative media websites have been habitually drawn together under a post-truth narrative. But despite many media commentators regularly making these connections, academic research has yet to establish any causal relationship.
Alternative online political media and mis/disinformation
As Rone (2019) points out, there are few sources of systematic academic evidence directly linking alternative media and mis/disinformation. Where links have been established, they tend to be within larger studies that explore misinformation more generally.
In their extensive report on online disinformation, Marwick and Lewis (2017, 19) describe how online communities are increasingly turning to predominately right-wing, conspiracy-driven news sources (see also Robb 2017). For example, the report identifies Alex Jones, who runs alternative media site Info Wars, and his promotion of the Barack Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy.4 This is empirically supported by Starbird (2017), who determined via an analysis of Twitter that the sharing of conspiracy-based narratives online was directly fuelled by sources of alternative media. This was also supported by Buzzfeeds analysis of Facebook (Silverman 2016). Marwick and Lewis (2017) also point out that conspiratorial claims are then covered by the mainstream media, which then perpetuate disinformation.
In looking at how mis/disinformation spreads online, Chadwick, et al. (2018) evidence its production and consumption by examining both media reporting and people s use of it. Using a survey of over 1,000 Twitter users who had shared news sources, researchers investigated the prominence of ‘democratically dysfunctional news sharing’: what they term the sharing of news sources containing dis/misinformation. There was no evidence that sharing information from UK alternative sites such as Breitbart London, Westmonster, Canary, and Evolve Politics was a predictor of such democratically dysfunctional news sharing (Chadwick, et al. 2018). This was despite these sites featuring prominently in the top 50 most shared news sources in their dataset of those shared by citizens (ibid).
To date, there are no comprehensive studies of AOPM content itself. However, in studying how ‘fake news’ sites discursively self-present, Roberton and Mourao (2020) link alternative news and mis/disinformation further by compiling a list of 953 websites labelled ‘fake news’ by third-party experts, activists, and journalists. They find that these sites frequently adopt ‘the discourses of alternative journalism’ and that this suggests a link between the two phenomena, wherein sites create an ‘impersonation of alternative journalism, combining its features with false information’ (ibid: 16, emphasis in original). Furthermore, there is evidence that AOPM often label mainstream media ‘fake news’ (Fingenschou & Ihlebaek 2019; Riebling & Wense 2019), complicating the picture further.
The sporadic evidence of links between alternative media and mis/disinformation tends to focus on high-profile incidents, such as Pizzagate or The Canary’s false reporting on Laura Kue-nssberg. Despite these notable cases, in comparing ten alternative media outlets across Europe, Kone (2019) found limited empirical evidence of mis/disinformation. The study argued that AOPM were characterised by a focus on a narrow set of topics according to their editorial biases and that ‘disinformation is only one, and a rather minor, aspect’ of alternative media. Moreover, since ‘alternative media’ can refer to many different groups of already-heterogenous sites across media systems, there is an ontological problem. While some claim to find explicit links between AOPM and disinformation (Faris 2017; Marwick & Lewis 2017), others (Chadwick, et al. 2018; Kone 2019) doubt such assumptions. Viewed another way, many alternative media sites may be spreading the same kind of misinformation that many partisan mainstream media outlets follow. Indeed, the UK editor of The Canary is on record as saying she adopts a kind of‘tabloid styling, tabloid-level language’ in order to champion the site’s political issues (Chakelian 2017).