Interview #29 – Populist Citizens & The Media

Anne Schulz investigates the relationship between populist citizens and the media. People with strong populist beliefs reject the media as an enemy because they seem to think that the media conspire together with the political elites. They mainly rely on soft news media and commercial TV. Moreover, populist citizens are strongly projecting their opinion onto public opinion. In other words, they believe that everybody else share their views. Finally: guess which social madia they prefer between Facebook and Twitter?

This, and much more, in a new interview. Enjoy.

populist citizen

Rare and ancient graffiti of a populist citizen

POP) First of all, who are the populist citizens? What do they believe in? What is their approach to politics and to the media?

Anne Schulz) This is a difficult question to begin with. Generally, populist citizens are those who support the populist ideology. That is, they agree to the different political ideas that together form the populist ideology and are convinced that this is how politics should be run and that this is how society is shaped. Anti-elitist attitudes and a demand for unrestricted popular sovereignty are clearly a part of the syndrome. I argue that also the belief in the people to be a homogeneous and virtuous group helps us to identify those who potentially vote for populist parties. This also includes the internalization of the Manichean outlook that characterizes populism. It is about us versus them and therefore also about a strong in-group identification to “the people”.

In my research, I found that citizens who support these ideas are also systematically rejecting “the media”. Populist citizens are convinced that ‘the media’ do not display their opinions but only the opinions of others, that media reporting is generally biased into an unfavorable direction and that the media also lie and conspire with the political elite.

POP) You have been studying from where citizens get their news. Could you describe the typical media diet of a populist citizen compared to a non-populist one?

the media

The Media/Sauron.

AS) A survey study conducted in 11 countries about populist citizens showed a preference for soft news media to get politically informed. The most robust finding pointed to a strong reliance on commercial TV news across all investigated countries. Quality newspapers were chosen to a significantly lesser degree the higher someone’s populist attitudes. What is interesting, also with regard to the current debate on filter bubbles and news audience polarization: I did not find a systematic avoidance of public TV news despite populist citizens’ high distrust in this news genre. The reasons for this are likely diverse. Habitual news use or limited choice might be two. Another possibility is that populist citizens chose to watch public service TV to confirm the hypothesis that this news genre lies. But this has yet to be investigated and might also be a question of change over time.

POP) You say that a healthy media skepticism has been replaced by a total distrust in the media, a phenomenon you call anti-media populism. Which are the causes and, on the long term, which could be the consequences of this transformation?

AS) This is certainly not true for the whole population but rather only for populist citizens. I have chosen a social identity approach to explain for this relation. Populist leaders are promoting anti-media attitudes (see Trump’s fake news accusations as a primary example for this) and more specifically, they declare the media as an out-group to the people.

In populism’s Manichean vision of society, the media stand on the side of the evil political elite, certainly opposed to the people. Citizens who identify as group members of the people should be prone to follow this cue, diffused by the populist leader who takes on the role of a stereotypical in-group member in this process. As was shown in social psychological research, stereotypical group members easily set group norms to which high identifying in-group members conform their thinking and behavior. This helps the group-members to maintain or gain a positive self-esteem. The anti-media cue should be much appreciated by in-group members of the people as it supports the vision of everybody turning against the people, while only the people and their leader resist and remain good. In that sense, this specific out-group derogation strengthens the in-group’s cohesion and makes everybody feel better about themselves. And yes, if the media are declared to be an out-group to the people, healthy media skepticism can no longer be an option. The media are sweepingly rejected as an enemy.

they are watching you

They are watching you.

If this type of group thinking is at work, and more empirical research needs to be done in order to establish prove for these assumptions, my predictions for the future relation between populist citizens and mainstream media are pretty dark, to be honest. To overcome solid group boundaries is likely much more difficult than to dissolve selective distrust.

POP) Is it possible that the growing relevance of populist actors in the public debate increased the negative attitudes towards the media? Alternatively, is it rather the other way around: a growing distrust in the media is opening the space for populist discourses?

AS) As laid out above, I do believe that anti-media rhetoric mainly exploited by populist actors plays a significant role in strengthening anti-media attitudes in populist citizens. If media distrust within the whole population is indeed growing or not is, however, an open question, as is the question of causality. In emancipated societies, distrust in news media is also chronic to a certain degree. This is valuable as it points to an active and critical citizenry. At the same time, however, this might offer a fertile breeding ground for populist actor’s anti-media rhetoric. In addition, the media system is very self-referential and this ultimately leads to media criticism being spread via the media system itself. These elite cues on media bias also have the potential to further foster media skepticism. Currently, the debate about disinformation, which also has links to populism, causes this type of concern. In their recent study, Emily Van Duyn and Jessica Collier found that exposure to the “fake news debate” indeed decreased media trust and lead to more difficulties in identifying real news.

POP) Do you think that populist citizens are more likely to be exposed to, and therefore diffuse, fake news? Why?

AS) If disinformation is spread that serves the populist ideas, populist citizens are likely among the first to encounter it. For one thing, it is a general human tendency to seek information that has the potential to reinforce prior attitudes. For another, populist citizens are further driven by their hostile media attitudes. As research on media skepticism shows, those who distrust the mainstream media have a tendency to turn to alternative news sources. I am not saying that all alternative news sources spread disinformation but some are certainly suspect.

If this content is shared or not depends on many other factors. For example, on how involved individuals are or on how threatened they perceive the public to be. Also the perceived public opinion climate plays a role: Is it in line with own views or not? The likelihood of publicly sharing content is much higher, if the public opinion climate is perceived to accord with own views. Interestingly, in one of our studies we show that populist citizens are strongly projecting their opinion onto public opinion. As a result, they believe to hold majority views. Therefore, we have to assume that their willingness to share respective content is potentially very high.

POP) What about social media, and in particular Facebook and Twitter: is there any difference in terms of the typical users of these communication channels?

caution elephants

Don’t think of an elephant! Or, the art of framing news.

AS) With regard to social media, I found that populist citizens prefer Facebook over Twitter when seeking political information online. As other studies show that populist communication is also more prominent on Facebook then on Twitter, we could conclude that apparently then the audience is where the content is or the other way around. Many reasons can have led to this. Surely, the news framing that populist citizens receive online via the channels of their preferred reference groups has the potential to shape their perception of content distributed via the mainstream media and their perception of the mainstream media themselves. I think it is extremely important to investigate this interaction to better understand the relations between populist attitudes, anti-media sentiments, and mainstream news use.

POP) The relationship between media and populist discourses is increasingly relevant to understand politics across the world. In your opinion, which are the big questions that researchers and journalists should ask to better interpret the current wave of populism?

print is not dead

Print is not dead (?).

AS) I tried to point to some future topics here and there above. What all these open research questions have in common is that they refer to theory that is at the core of both, political science and communication science but also touches upon psychology and sociology. In that sense, research on populism is a very good example for the importance of interdisciplinary research. We need to exploit this more and more efficiently share our knowledge. This is also true for a necessary exchange with journalists. Journalists to whom I talk are very insecure of how they should treat the issue of populism: ignore it, deconstruct it, or point to valuable comments made by populist actors to also display them positively – at least occasionally? We need to sit down together and discuss all these ideas to come up with solutions. But I’ll stop right here as I am clearly talking too much and taking to little action… 😉 Thank you for your good questions!

AnneSchulzAnne Schulz is a PhD student in the media psychology and effects division at the Department of Communication and Media Research (IKMZ) at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. In her dissertation she focuses on the interplay of populist attitudes, media bias perceptions, public opinion perceptions, and media use. She is interested in political communication and media effects research.

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