Working paper
Digital Media and Populism. The Online News Consumption of Citizens Holding Populist Attitudes & its Implication for Democratic Public Spheres
Paris : Sciences Po, Chair Digital, Governance and Sovereignty
The policy report is based on an empirical study carried out by Caterina Froio (Sciences Po, CEE), Nora Kirkizh, Sebastian Stier (GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Mannheim) and Ralph Schroeder (University of Oxford, OII), supported by the Volkswagen Foundation (Grant No. 94758). Data and duplication material is available here. The study highlights the following points relevant for democratic public spheres that should be considered by policymakers when designing public policy and advocating for political change: - Today, citizens navigate a “high-choice media environment” with an ever-increasing variety of sources of political information and news available online. Traditional media are competing with a multitude of digital-born information outlets and people can access a wide range of sources with relative ease, at low cost and more targeted. - On the Internet, most people in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States still get the news from established sources - such as the legacy press or public broadcasting- and citizens holding populist attitudes do not avoid these. - Concerns that digital media would drive citizens holding populist attitudes to alternative news sources at a large scale are unwarranted, even if these citizens do consume less legacy news. This trend highlights the weakened role of the press, which is a troubling sign for public debates in democracies: a strong press adhering to high journalistic standards provide the framework for a well-informed public sphere and democratic opinion-formation. - The effects that populist attitudes have on the news diets of citizens differ significantly across countries depending on their political and media system. Specifically,when holding populist attitudes, the likelihood to navigate to alternative news sources is strongly dependent on the configuration of the media environment in each country: Only if there is a noteworthy hyperpartisan news ecosystem in the country (like in the US), people holding populist attitudes actually do navigate to these sources. - Policymakers must understand the structure of the national media system and the implications it has for the online news consumption of people with different political attitudes. With this in mind, governments and policymakers must find ways to prevent that already disaffected or skeptical citizens turn their back towards the legacy press. Finally, more research is needed to understand if people holding populist attitudes process online information and news differently than others, and whether social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, and algorithmic filtering lead to selective news exposure per se.