Alternative media and populism
Evidence that links alternative media and populism is more substantive than with mis/disinformation, but there are only a limited number of empirical studies exploring this relationship.
Research carried out by Reuters has shown that ‘alternative or partisan outlets’ are ‘often favoured by those with populist views, in addition to having audiences with a heavy left-right skew’ (Newman, et al. 2019, 43). In particular, the research highlights both The Canary and Breitbart as those with ‘very populist audiences’ (ibid, 46). Together with AOPM’s reliance on social media, the fact that people with populist attitudes are heavy Facebook News users (Newman, et al. 2019, 42) and research indicating that social media facilitates populist messaging (Engesser, et al. 2016), the synergies are clear to see. Simplified populist discourses that divide society into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups have shown to be very persuasive (Hameleers, et al. 2018). As Mazzolini and Bracciale argue (2018, 3), social media platforms are suited to the kind of emotional and controversial content shared by populists. The evident adoption of these kinds of discourses by AOPM may be in part what is driving their success, particularly on social media.
Noppari et al. (2019) explored how and why Finnish users consume ‘populist counter media’. Based on interviews with a demographically diverse set of their readers, the researchers found they ‘made active, affective and conscious choices to consume and engage with material that contradicted the agendas and views of the dominant public sphere and promoted strong ideological stances expressed via populist address’ (ibid, 33, emphasis added). In particular, Noppari et al. identified a user archetype they termed ‘system sceptics’ (ibid, 29), whose broadly antiestablishment and legacy media views mirrored typically populist attitudes. These users viewed populist counter media as ‘a way to construct and share material that could counter, challenge and bypass the ideological power of the mainstream media’ (ibid, 30). However, these valuable qualitative findings come from just one national study.
In the German/Austrian context, Haller and Holt’s (2019) study of the populist PEGIDA movement’s Facebook page found that alternative media sources were overwhelmingly (99 percent of the time) used to affirm the existing political views of users (ibid, 1674). The researchers suggest this connection relates to the anti-system content of the alternative media observed, supporting Noppari et al.’s interview findings. More recently, Rae (2020) has argued that populism and alternative media such as Breitbart and The Canary share inherent media logics, including ‘personalisation’, ‘emotionalization and simplification’, ‘polarisation’, ‘intensification’, and ‘anti-establishment’, which are evidently reflected in the practices of what she terms ‘hyper partisan news’ (ibid, 4). With respect to personalisation, Marwick and Lewis (2017, 47) observed that ‘there is increasing evidence that Trump voters primarily consumed hyperpartisan news, much of which, like Infowars and Breitbart, played a key role in amplifying subcultural messages’.
While there is evidence to suggest a link between AOPM and populism, there are important caveats. For instance, Reuters research shows that people with populist attitudes still prefer television to online as their main source of news (Newman, et al. 2019, 42), meaning claims that AOPM are a primary driver of populist attitudes are overly simplified. Again, due to evidence that AOPM’s reach is limited, the accommodation of populism in broadcast and tabloid media is likely to be far more effective.
Considerations for future empirical research
As we have noted, alternative media scholars have been stressing the importance of hybridity for many years. In sum, it is currently easier for ‘any online user to establish alternative media and news websites, and to access media material that can be used to construct and support various political and ideological positions’ (Noppari, et al. 2019, 24). Consequently, a wider range of news providers could potentially provide more diversity in information and commentary but might also increase the visibility and impact of ‘partisan information, disinformation and “fake news”’ (Figenschou & Ihlebæk 2019, 1221).
In addition to AOPM sites themselves, social media platforms have been key to populism and disinformation debates. Engesser et al. (2016), for example, showed how European politicians use Twitter and Facebook to spread populist ideologies. Meanwhile, Chadwick et al. (2018) identified a link between social media, tabloid journalism, and the spread of mis/disinformation. This is important since social media environments are central to concerns about spreading disinformation and are crucial to how AOPM disseminate content. According to Newman, et al. (2019, 39), 30 percent of those participating in UK news groups within Facebook or WhatsApp use alternative or partisan brands, compared with just 7 percent for the overall sample.’
Moreover, biases can be perpetuated by dominant discourses within commentary and analysis of AO I’M. Terms such as partisan, for example, are often reserved exclusively for alternative outlets. Indeed, the term alternative might simply point to a position ‘beyond the mainstream, beyond the pale’ (Holt 2018, 52), and such understandings can lead to false accusations. This was the case when three Dutch news outlets were inaccurately labelled as ‘fake news’ in 2018 (Kone 2019). Moreover, tabloid news outlets are also consistently partisan (Deacon & Wring 2019) and are also a key part of dysfunctional news-sharing behaviour (Chadwick, et al. 2018). In the UK, right-wing partisan outlets such as The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph supply the overwhelming majority of digital news (Newman, et al. 2019), emphasising that the impact of partisan-driven mis/disinformation is likely to be much more considerable when it is spread by mainstream media (see Moore 2020).