Kristoffer Holt, Populism and Alternative Media in:

Benjamin Krämer, Christina Holtz-Bacha (Ed.)

Perspectives on Populism and the Media, page 201 - 214

Avenues for Research

1. Edition 2020, ISBN print: 978-3-8487-5561-5, ISBN online: 978-3-8452-9739-2,

Series: International Studies on Populism, vol. 7

Bibliographic information
Populism and Alternative Media Kristoffer Holt Introduction An area that has been researched quite extensively during recent years is the relationship between media and populism (Aalberg et al., 2016; Krämer, 2018). Controversial populist politicians like Jair Bolsonaro, Nigel Farage, and Donald Trump and their special relationship with the news media often serve as examples due to the mainstream media’s fascination with them and because they never seem to cease feeding the media’s appetite for scandal and sensation. There has been less work done on the connection between populism and alternative media. It is clear that populist politicians receive substantial support from various alternative media outlets like Breitbart News Network in the US and from organizations working through social media like the Non-Partisan School Movement in Brazil (Escola Sem Partido) (Romancini & Castilho, 2019). Most research, however, tends to focus on the relationship between mainstream mass media and populist politicians and how the news media plays an important role in laying the ground for populist rhetoric (Aalberg et al., 2016; Krämer, 2017, 2018). There is less research on the link between populism and alternative media, though the link is quite clear in some cases. This chapter explores this link. Right-leaning populist alternative media have certainly made an impact on public discourse in many countries (Heft, Mayerhöffer, Reinhardt, & Knüpfer, 2019; Sandberg & Ihlbæk, 2019; Aalberg, Esser, Reinemann, Strömback, & De Vreese, 2016; Haller, Holt, & de la Brosse, 2019). Strikingly often, these alternative media combine criticism of liberal immigration policies with anti-elite messages, including harsh criticism of mainstream media which are often described as being backed by the corrupt elite (Holt, 2019; Binder, 2015; Nygaard, 2018). This form of populist distrust in traditional media is striking (Fawzi, 2019), but the connection between populist actors and the established media is more complex than simply the opposition between alternative media and the mainstream. Political actors depend on publicity (Mazzoleni, 2014), and in turn the media have much to gain from covering scandalous and sensational events and 1. 201 pronouncements made by populist politicians such as Donald Trump (Lawrence & Boydstun, 2017), creating a relationship of mutual dependency. But in this chapter, I aim to focus specifically on the alternative media of the right-wing populist brand and their role in our current media landscape. The most relevant question to explore in relation to this topic is, How do alternative media affect the political climate and the surrounding media landscape? It is clear that they have become important players in the realm of opinion formation and culture in general (Sandberg & Ihlbæk, 2019; Holt, 2019; Nagle, 2017). Outspoken distrust and criticism of the mainstream media is today routine among populist actors—in politics as well as in alternative media—throughout the West. The idea is that the mainstream media withhold or thwart reporting on information that might be sensitive in light of a politically correct agenda. But what does research tell us at this point about what effects it has from a larger perspective? In the following, I will try to outline what can be learned from current research. But first, let us further clarify the concepts. Conceptual Confusion When discussing “alternative media,” especially when it comes to populist right-wing examples, there is much confusion as to what is actually being debated, what classifications to use (especially in terms of ideology), and whether it is proper to talk about right-wing media as “alternative” media at all since some argue that it constitutes a contradiction in terms (“rightwing” is then automatically considered to be on the side of the “status quo” and “alternative” to signify a “pro-change” position) (Holt, 2019). It is no secret that research on alternative media has, to a high degree, historically been inspired by Marxism in general and Antonio Gramsci and his analysis of hegemony in particular. From that perspective, alternative media has been construed as a force of empowerment for voices that are often socially and culturally marginalized and have trouble getting their message through to large audiences (Fuchs, 2010). The phrase “mainstream media” was from the beginning an expression of a radical left-wing and critical view of how the media influences people’s worldviews. Researchers who have studied media and activism often describe alternative media in idealized terms as an expression of an ideal type of plebeian or subaltern public formation (Atton, 2015; Bailey, Cammaerts, & Carpentier, 2007; Lievrouw, 2011; Pajnik & Downing, 2008). 2. Kristoffer Holt 202 Historically, “alternative media” has signified an ideal that provides ordinary citizens and marginalized groups a platform for building movements and from which to give voice to the voiceless (Atton, 2015; Fuchs, 2010; Bailey, Cammaerts, & Carpentier, 2007; Lievrouw, 2011; Pajnik & Downing, 2008). A clear focus in research has been directed towards activist use of alternative media from a critical perspective (Fuchs, 2010; Penney & Dadas, 2014). According to Marxist thought, there must be a superstructure upheld by cultural institutions such as universities, the media, and organized religion. This superstructure provides people with a rationale for not rebelling against perceived mismanagement, injustice, or oppression. This notion is outspokenly founded on distrust of the political, economic, and intellectual/cultural elite in capitalist society, and the critical perspective has highlighted the role of the media in the maintenance of a mass culture that aims to legitimize the capitalist system. (Coyer, Dowmunt, & Fountain, 2007). However, scholars have been hesitant to analyze populist criticism of the mainstream media using the theoretical work coming from the critical tradition in which the mainstream media is seen as an important tool that the ruling class can use to create “false consciousness” (Bates, 1975). Researchers have rarely conceptualized right-wing populist criticism against what is described as elitist and politically correct mainstream media according to such narratives. Instead, it is notable that other terms such as “junk news,” “fake news,” and “disinformation” are often employed when referring to right-wing populist alternative media (Hedman, Sivnert, & Howard, 2018). Although such labels most certainly hit their mark on many occasions, it is important to take the labeling seriously and to be careful not to paint oneself into a corner that will be tricky to get out of (conceptually speaking). Noppari, Hiltunen, and Ahva (2019) describe what they call a larger discourse of a “post-truth narrative” that is often combined with moral concern over the audience’s media literacy. Rightwing populist media is then described as a threat because it has the potential to mislead citizens using descriptions of reality that are described as hateful, fake, extremist, or simply vulgar: “Within this narrative, media users who consume partisan online content have stereotypically been labeled as misguided and as having insufficient media literacy” (Noppari, Hiltunen, Ahva, 2019, p. 23-24). The problem inherent in such a perspective is, of course, that the label tends to be applied even before the research is done, often based on evaluations of source rather than content and strikingly often without studying the user perspective (Holt, 2019). A number of recent studies acknowledge that right-wing alternative media should be analyzed along the same theoretical lines as, for example, Populism and Alternative Media 203 left-wing alternative media. Clearly, the stated reason for alternative media (left or right) is based on the perception that the mainstream media do not represent some perspectives or actors fairly. Even in countries with a strong public service presence in the media (Norway, Finland, and Sweden, for example), this perception is widely articulated in alternative media (Figenschou & Ihlbæk, 2019; Holt, 2019; Hiltunen, Noppari, & Ahva, 2019; Nygaard, 2019). Therefore, alternative media theoretically serve to accommodate people who experience this sort of treatment. (If they are correct or not in this perception is another question). The point is that alternative media, including right-wing populist alternative media, is probably best understood as a phenomenon that signifies a reaction to something that is perceived to be wrong; they exist in relation to something that was there before them. Alternative Media and Populism—the Relational Approach In accordance with the above statement that alternative media publish alternative narratives that go against the mainstream, they can be seen as primarily “reactive” or “relational” (Holt, Figenschou, & Frischlich, 2019; Haller & Holt, 2019). By virtue of their reactivity, alternative media then affect other media and the general debate in various ways, often in a manner that makes manifest existing cultural, political, and religious opposition and polarization. This is often taken as proof that they cause and further fuel polarization, however, this is not necessarily the case since it might actually be a case of expressing views that are already present in the larger population. This is, however, an issue that needs to be studied more closely before certainty is merited. In some cases, alternative media express extreme and hateful content, while at other times, they do not. Therefore, it is important to not rush to judgment and instead to analyze each case carefully before applying labels of extremism (Holt, 2018). This general stance can be detected in much recently published research, and the results provide inspiring lessons about this relatively new and, as it seems, expanding phenomena. In the following, I will describe some key findings from such current research. In order to discuss an “alternative,” it is impossible to ignore the question of to what it is an alternative, and in the case of alternative media, this must always be something that can be defined by terms such as “mainstream media” or “legacy media,” in any case, something that denotes the idea of a powerful and somewhat uniform media environment where news and views are produced and disseminated according to largely predictable 3. Kristoffer Holt 204 patterns—thematically as well as ideologically—and in which there is limited tolerance for views that fall outside of what is considered the norm, or as Hallin puts it, outside the sphere of “legitimate controversy” and therefore doomed to the “sphere of deviance” (Hallin, 1989; Figenshou & Ihlbæk, 2018). A number of recent studies have employed this “relational” approach in analyses of right-wing populist alternative media. The relational approach takes as a starting point the view that alternative media in general are best understood as “(self-) perceived correctives of ‘traditional’, ‘legacy’ or ‘mainstream’ news media in a given socio-cultural and historical context” (Holt, Figenshou, & Frischlisch, 2019). Alternative media are thus understood as self-appointed and self-described “correctives” engaged in a struggle against mainstream media outlets over how to describe the world and what topics and perspectives are to be considered salient in public discourse ( Haller & Holt, 2019; Heft, Mayerhöffer, Reinhardt, & Knüpfer, 2019; Holt, 2019; Sandberg & Ihlbæk, 2019). Their alternative qualities can be observed on different levels: on the "micro level” by publishing alternative content and by relying on alternative content producers; on the “meso level” through alternative publishing routines and alternative organizational structures; and finally on the “macro level” by standing outside the established press and thus constituting a counterpart to the mainstream news media (Holt, Figenshou, & Frischlisch, 2019). From such a perspective, the alternative quality of alternative media comes from a sense of being in opposition to the mainstream, which is presumed to present reality to citizens in a hegemonic way that excludes and mistreats certain perspectives and voices (Rauch, 2015). The mainstream media, seen as a powerful entity in society, is therefore a necessary one, serving the role of the other that one must position oneself against. From an analytical perspective, what is most important is to not determine who deserves to fly the “counter hegemonic” banner. Rather, the focus should be on finding the most productive ways of understanding how alternative media affect public discourse in the present media landscape: “Media of different positions that promise to oppose what they see as dominant, influential and agenda setting news media that shape the worldviews of citizens in a way that they don’t agree with and therefore seek to counter” (Holt, Figenshou, & Frischlisch, 2019). An example of a study that has this starting point is Sandberg and Ihlbæk (2019) who analyzed links shared on Facebook during the 2018 Swedish election campaign and found that right-wing alternative media had a comparatively high visibility on Facebook: a total of 28% of the sample of shared news on Facebook originated from these sites, and the level of interaction and engagement caused by such shared links was similar to Populism and Alternative Media 205 that brought about by links from mainstream news providers. This analysis is interesting, since it not only says something about populist strategic use of social media (which is fairly well documented by now and not unique to populist actors); it also implies that the narratives circulated by such actors resonate among large groups of people, and that they might be interpreted as actually providing talking points, news and views that are shared by many, not expressed elsewhere in the media landscape. Again, more research is needed to investigate this relationship. In a Norwegian content analysis of 600 alternative online outlets, Figenshou and Ihlbæk (2019) took a closer look at media criticism published on the most important right-wing populist alternative media in Norway. Their results specifically focused on the different positions from which the mainstream media are criticized and how the criticism is legitimized. This study clearly sees the emergence of alternative media on the right as a reaction against the existing mainstream, and media criticism itself can thus be understood as an expression of that reaction. The authors identified different positions as making critical assessments of legacy news media or journalists. For example, criticism could be stated from the position of someone who has personal experience of being a victim of unfair or biased treatment by journalists or editors. In other cases, the focus is more on factual knowledge and correcting journalistic narratives and statements. As the authors note, these observations are helpful for understanding the appeal of these publications. Nygaard (2018) studied Scandinavian “immigration-critical alternative media” qualitatively with the aim of describing the journalistic voice in the texts they published. An important finding from this study is that the aim behind these alternative media seems to be relatively similar in the different Scandinavian countries. Although their politicians have dealt quite differently with the immigration issue, the baseline in the disseminated messages seems to be a common focus on “convincing the public that the Scandinavian societies have become unsafe due to increased immigration, and that the political elite and the criminal justice system are to blame” (p. 1). At the same time, Nygaard shows that there are large differences between the countries, where the Swedish sites tend to report on news in a more descriptive fashion compared to their Danish counterparts, who instead employ more normative judgments, and Norway, whose position is somewhere in between that of Sweden and Denmark. The results establish the relational nature of these alternative media while at the same time demonstrating contextual differences that are crucial to understanding how they interact and influence their respective media environments. Kristoffer Holt 206 Heft, Mayerhöffer, Reinhardt, and Knüpfer (2019) conducted a comparative analysis of right-wing alternative media’s role in the “digital news infrastructures” in six countries (Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, UK, and US). The study devotes substantial attention to the notion of context and shows that the specific characteristics of each digital news infrastructure will affect the way in which alternative media operate and in turn how they affect the media landscape. In Sweden and Germany, for example, the mainstream media clearly have an outspokenly “critical stance toward far‐right and right‐wing populist positions” (p. 8), and therefore the “supply of and demand for right‐wing news is most likely to rely on alternative modes of news production and dissemination” (p. 9). In contrast, Great Britain already has an established news infrastructure that includes dissemination of right-wing news and perspectives. In relation to population, Sweden displayed the largest number of right-wing alternative media, while Great Britain had the lowest number. Sweden and Germany also score higher than the other countries when it comes to audience demand. The results therefore suggest that countries in which there is a notable “marginalization of right‐wing views and positions in media and politics” (p. 20), the likelihood increases that right‐wing alternative news infrastructure will become more active and popular and also more strongly established as a voice in public discourse. This tendency is also proposed by von Nordheim, Müller, and Scheppe (2019) who analyzed the German context specifically. In their study, they compared the right-wing publication Junge Freiheit to the most influential mainstream newspapers in the country with a focus on how the immigration issue was reported on during the crisis of 2015-16. While the established press tended to contextualize the German case by situating it within the larger EU perspective, Junge Freiheit focused more on the German setting. Furthermore, von Nordheim, Müller, and Scheppe (2019) analyzed what Junge Freiheit wrote about the “mainstream media” specifically in order to study how this publication positions itself against other actors. The results are telling, and they echo findings in other studies (Holt, 2016; Haller & Holt, 2019): they show that Junge Freiheit often writes about news that has already been reported in the mainstream press. In other words, while much has been assumed about the audience of populist right-wing alternative media, there has in fact been very little research done. Jennifer Rauch (2015) has done some pioneering work that includes the audience of right-leaning alternative media. Her research highlights, among other things, the fact that readers tend to seek out media that provide perspectives they think are missing in mainstream news reporting. One of the questions of most relevance, that of size (of the audi- Populism and Alternative Media 207 ence), is notoriously difficult to answer. Newman et al. (2018, 2019) have begun to include questions about usage of alternative and partisan media in the annual Digital News Report. The results are very interesting and show readership in terms of usage during the last week as well as awareness of alternative brands. In Sweden, for example, the biggest right-wing alternative media reach about 10% of the population, while in Brazil the biggest alternative brand, “O Antagonista,” reaches 19% a week. The most interesting and common result from all countries studied is that many more are aware of these brands than actually use them. In the US, for example, 22% of the population typically use alternative news during a week, but awareness of, for example, Breitbart News Network, is at 44% of the population. In a study from Finland, Noppari, Hiltunen, and Ahva (2019) present one of few studies focusing on the audience of right-wing alternative media, or “populist counter-media” in their terminology. They interviewed 24 users of what they call “populist counter-media (PCM)” websites in Finland. Their results point to three different types of motivation among users of these sites. First, there are the “system sceptics” who express dissatisfaction and animosity towards the political system as well as the media. Second, the authors identify a group called “agenda critics” who are more specifically critical of how reality is represented in the news. The third category is the “casually discontent,” signifying occasional users who are looking for diverse gratification such entertainment or information. This study is particularly relevant since it sheds light on the fact that media consumption is an individual choice and that use of and engagement with content from right-wing media is not something that people generally stumble across accidentally, but is rather the result of an active and conscious choice of the particular alternative media. More research along these lines comparing across countries and cultures would further increase our understanding of the audience of alternative right-wing media. Concluding Remarks Right-wing populist alternative media has been one of the most debated pieces in the puzzle of explaining the recent rise and success of right-wing populism in countries throughout the world. Much has been written along the lines of trying to link the emergence of online populist right-wing alternative media to the greater notion of junk news or disinformation. Alternative media, especially in the online world, represent powerful platforms for the formation of “counter publics” (Leung & Lee, 2014) and provide good examples of what is often referred to as “echo chambers” 4. Kristoffer Holt 208 (Jamieson & Cappella, 2008) through algorithmic power employed by big tech “filter bubbles” (Pariser, 2011) which are often described as causing polarization, division, and hostility. But implied in such explanatory models for the success of populism is that it must be because people are somehow misled on a large scale by false information and propaganda, that they become misguided in their political preferences and as a result start supporting right-wing populists (Howard & Bradshaw, 2018; Lewis, 2018). Although the existence of such entities as troll armies, disinformation, and bots is undeniable, the hypothesis that this automatically transforms large groups of citizens into right-wing populists is a somewhat weak model of explanation, mostly because it underestimates and almost disqualifies large groups of people from being able to make independent decisions. In today’s high-choice media environment, it seems rather that pre-existing political attitudes determine engagement with media products, a phenomenon observable, for example, in practices of “selective sharing” (Shin & Thorson, 2017) and the very selective nature of exposure to disinformation, where it has been demonstrated that a very small part of the population account for the bulk of the traffic at so-called “fake news sites” (Guess, Nyhan, & Reifler, 2018). Furthermore, research has recently problematized the effect on content diversity that is actually caused by algorithms (Nelson & Webster, 2017). The idea that fake news or alternative media have caused many to embrace populism overstates the effect that media consumption has on individuals’ political preferences, at least in comparison to how media scholars usually describe this relationship. But mostly it clouds the view by making it possible to avoid asking questions that can be perceived as uncomfortable for various reasons, for example: Why does the sharp criticism of the mainstream media seem to resonate so well with large numbers of the population in some countries? What is the substance of this criticism, and is there anything to it? What motivates people to become engaged in debates and news available in alternative media? In order to answer such questions, it is necessary to go beyond pre-determined explanatory models and to be open to unexpected results. The relational approach that I have described in this chapter provides good examples of how this can be done and also how it is helpful for understanding alternative media in relation to populism. Another question that will be necessary to deal with in the future relates to the changing nature of the relationship between alternative and mainstream media. Linda Kenix has written about this relationship and characterized it as a converging spectrum, but she states that the tendency seems to be towards alternative media adopting more and more mainstream practices: alternative media “which have historically been created in explic- Populism and Alternative Media 209 it opposition to the mainstream, are increasingly drawing from mainstream practices to gain visibility in a crowded media market” (Kenix, 2011, p. 187). As pointed out by many more since then, especially in relation to populist alternative media, in the phase after populist politicians gain power (e.g., Breitbart News Network after Trump’s victory in 2016), the question is raised of how long it will be relevant to talk about them as alternatives. The media landscape in post-2016 US, for example, remains largely divided, but there are clear tendencies for outlets that were previously identified as alternative media, such as Breitbart News Network and The Daily Wire which started out as clearly articulated alternatives to the mainstream, to more and more become household names even among established media. 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This volume assembles a wide range of perspectives on populism and the media, bringing together various disciplinary and theoretical approaches, authors and examples from different continents and a wide range of topical issues. The chapters discuss the contexts of populist communication, communication by populist actors, different types of populist messages (populist communication in traditional and new media, populist criticism of the media, populist discourses related to different topics, etc.), the effects and consequences of populist communication, populist media policy and anti-populist discourses. The contributions synthesise existing research on this subject, propose new approaches to it or present new findings on the relationship between populism and the media. With contibutions by Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz


Der Band vereint ein breites Spektrum von Perspektiven auf das Thema Populismus und Medien. Er bringt verschiedene fachliche und theoretische Ansätze, Beitragende und Beispiele von mehreren Kontinenten und ein breites Spektrum aktueller Themen und Herausforderungen zusammen. Die Kapitel behandeln den Kontext populistischer Kommunikation, Kommunikation durch populistische Akteure, verschiedene Typen populistischer Botschaften (populistische Kommunikation in traditionellen und neuen Medien, populistische Medienkritik, populistische Diskurse zu verschiedenen Themen), Wirkungen und Konsequenzen populistischer Kommunikation, populistische Medienpolitik, aber auch antipopulistische Diskurse. Die Beiträge systematisieren vorhandene Forschung, schlagen neue Ansätze vor oder präsentieren neue Befunde zum Verhältnis von Populismus und Medien. Mit Beiträgen von Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz