The populist nature of perceived mis- and disinformation

More than conventional media trust measures, mis- and disinformation perceptions aim to map the people’s opposition to mainstream media in times of a so-called populist Zeitgeist (Mudde, 2004). Hence, it has been argued that populist ideas — which concern the expression of an antagonistic worldview or ideology in which the ordinary people are framed in opposition to the ‘corrupt’ elites (e.g. Aalberg et al., 2017; Canovan, 1999; Mudde, 2004) — increasingly manifests itself outside the realm of populist politicians. For example, populist ideas have been found to manifest as frames or organising ideas in news coverage (e.g. Hameleers & Vliegent-hart, 2020) and as individual-level attitudes corresponding to the perceived divide between the ordinary people’s in-group and the evil and corrupt elites (e.g. Schulz et al., 2017).

Perceptions of mis- and disinformation resonate with populist sentiments. The element of anti-elitism central to populism pertains not only to the people’s opposition towards political elites but also to media elites (e.g. Egelhofer & Lecheler, 2019; Kramer, 2018; Tambini, 2017). Hence, voicing critique of the functioning and honesty of the established press has become a key element of populist communication tactics, which increasingly revolve around an epistemic crisis that separates the people’s truth from the lies and deception of the media. On the demand side of voters, empirical research has, indeed, established an affinity between citizens’ populist attitudes and anti-media sentiments (e.g. Fawzi, 2018; Schulz et al., 2017). This means that the more salient people’s populist attitudes, the more likely they are to perceive the media as an enemy of the people. Populist worldviews thus not only refer to an antagonistic divide between the ordinary people and the corrupt elite but can also emphasise that the news media are to blame for distorting reality and for depriving the ordinary citizens of the truth.

The affinity between populist perceptions and anti-media attitudes (Fawzi, 2018; Schulz et al., 2017) is captured in perceptions of mis- and disinformation. Although extant conceptualisations of populist attitudes measure the ordinary people’s opposition to the elites (e.g. Schulz et al., 2017), populist attitudes do not specify the elite actors they refer to beyond the political realm. As populist ideas juxtapose the people not only to established politicians but also to media elites and institutions, we need to understand populist perceptions of the media as an integral part of populist worldviews. As populist movements on the left and right that accuse the media of spreading fake news are gaining electoral terrain (e.g. Egelhofer & Lecheler, 2019), it is important to assess how these delegitimising perceptions of the media spill over into the electorate.

Hence, moving beyond distrust towards the media and populist perceptions as distinct constructs, it can be argued that the perceived divide between the ordinary people and the dishonest or corrupt elite may also be conceived on the level of media elites and institutions of the mainstream press. We therefore incorporate populist anti-media sentiments in our measure of perceived disinformation — such as the peoples perception that the news media are an enemy of the ordinary people, that they only serve their own self-interest, and that the news media are deliberately lying to the people. By integrating the anti-media component of populist ideology' into our conceptualisation of perceived disinformation, we empirically approach the affinity between anti-media sentiments and populist media critique that has been developed recently (e.g. Fawzi, 2018; Schulz et al., 2017).

Illustrating perceptions of mis- and disinformation

We report on the findings of a large-scale comparative survey in ten European countries in the period of the 2019 European parliamentary elections (see Hameleers et al., 2020, for documentation and background information). The ten included countries, which represent different regions in Europe, are the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. We selected these European countries to achieve a maximum variety in contextual-level factors and regional differences that may resonate with perceptions of mis- and disinformation on the individual level.1

Measures for misinformation perceptions tapped the perceived veracity, accuracy, and truthfulness of traditional news reporting. These perceptions were measured with the following items (all measured on seven-point disagree-agree scales): (1) The news media do not report accurately on facts that happened; (2) To understand real-life events, you cannot rely on the news media; (3) The news media are an unreliable source of factual information; and (4) The news media insufficiently rely on expert sources. Disinformation perceptions were measured with the following items: (1) The news media are an enemy of the ordinary people; (2) The news media are deliberately lying to the people; and (3) The news media only serve their own interests. The items used for perceived misinformation and disinformation were theoretically informed by conceptualisations of fake news (e.g. Tandoc Jr. et al., 2018; Wardle, 2017), as a well as populist attitudes (for the disinformation dimension only) (e.g. Schulz et al., 2017).

Do citizens systematically distinguish between deliberately misleading and inaccurate reporting, and in what countries are the differences between mis- and disinformation strongest? Our findings indicate that citizens in most countries distinguish between mis- and disinformation perceptions, with the exception of Greece and Spain (see Figure 34.1). Hence, in these countries, average levels of misinformation perceptions are equally as high as disinformation perceptions.

In all other countries, misinformation perceptions are significantly lower than disinformation perceptions. Citizens are thus mostly capable of distinguishing their critical perspective on the news medias performance from cynical and populist interpretations of the medias dishonesty. Spain and Greece, two Southern European countries with high overall levels of media distrust and corruption, may provide a contextual backdrop in which citizens hold negative and cynical attitudes towards the press. Distrust in the media may be so severe that citizens do not distinguish between ‘honest’ mistakes and ‘lying’ and corrupt media elites. When news consumers have at least a basic level of trust in the institutions governing the media, as in most countries, a fine-grained distinction between critical media perceptions and cynical or populist media attitudes can be maintained.

Looking at the differences between the countries in more detail, it can be observed that the average levels of mis- and disinformation perceptions vary strongly across national settings (see Figure 34.1). Regarding the average level of misinformation, France (A4 = 4.91, SD = 1.19) and The Netherlands (A4 = 3.75, SD = 1.12) differ most strongly. Differences of one full scale point can also be observed for Southern and Eastern European countries versus Northern and Western European countries. Interestingly, many of these differences mirror contextual factors that differ across the ten European countries. In countries where media trust levels and press freedom indicators are low and corruption is high, misinformation perceptions are most salient.

Differences in disinformation perceptions are even stronger than national differences in perceived misinformation. Specifically, disinformation perceptions are strongest in Greece (A4 = 4.91, SD = 1.19) and lowest in Sweden (A4 = 3.20, SD = 1.54). Similar substantial between-country differences can be observed between Southern European countries (e.g. Greece) and other Western and Northern European countries (e.g. The Netherlands).

Differences in levels of disinformation perceptions can be connected to contextual-level factors. Specifically, in countries with less press freedom and stronger indicators of corruption, news consumers are more likely to distrust the honesty of the press and perceive the news media as the peoples enemy (e.g. in Greece and Poland). Contrary to what may be expected, the presence of successful right-wing populist parties is not associated with stronger disinformation perceptions. Hence, although right-wing populist parties are successful in many Western European countries (e.g. The Netherlands, Sweden), disinformation perceptions are generally lowest in Western Europe.

Pigtire 34.1 A depiction of the mean scores of mis- and disinformation perceptions in the ten countries under study

(See also Hameleers et al., 2020)

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