Beyond the MSM: Understanding the rise of alternative online political media

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Journalism Media and Cultural Studies

Abstract

After the British public voted to leave the EU, Donald Trump's Presidential victory and Jeremy Corbyn's rising support during the 2017 UK election campaign, the mainstream media (MSM) were criticised for not anticipating these events. They were accused of not reflecting or understanding many people's alienation from and anger with the mainstream media and political establishment. On both sides of the political spectrum, the acronym MSM has become a widely used pejorative term to characterise a broad range of legacy media that represents the establishment, protecting the interests of elites and perpetuating the political status quo.
It is in this context that many voters went beyond the MSM during the 2017 UK general election campaign and turned to what have been labelled alt-left media sites, where more pro-Labour and anti-MSM messages were being conveyed. This included sites such as The Canary, Evolve Politics, Wings over Scotland, Novara Media, Skwawkbox and Another Angry Voice. They became a prominent part of the campaign because they reached voters across many social media platforms, particularly Facebook, and bypassed the reliance on MSM for news. One study found that while established MSM brands dominated traffic on websites during the 2017 election campaign, in "coverage widely shared on Facebook, the picture is vastly different. Online native news sites like The Canary and even blogs like Another Angry Voice were able to achieve larger audiences than many strong print and TV news brands" (Littunen 2017). The rise of new alterative left media were credited with not just helping Jeremy Corbyn's Labour secure more votes amongst young people, but challenging the MSM's agenda setting power, including diminishing the editorial power of right wing newspapers, which far outnumber left-leaning titles.
Since they rose to prominence during the 2017 UK election campaign, there has been no systematic research examining the content of these sites, the editorial motivation behind them or how people understand and engage with them. The aim of this research project is to understand the production, content and consumption of both left- and right-wing alternative online political media, such as Westmonster, Breitbart UK, Conservative Woman and Guido Fawkes. We are also interested in exploring people's views about the MSM and whether they are turning to alternative media because of a perceived bias in political coverage.
We will examine the production, content and users of alternative media by carrying out a comprehensive analysis of selected sites and their use of twitter between 2016 and 2021, conducting approximately 50 interviews with both the editors and contributors, as well as with between 75-100 regular users. We will also use Twitter sentiment tools to examine how topics such as the MSM and BBC are understood by audiences. We have already established access with many alternative media sites and regular users of them (see supporting letters).
By closely analysing alternative online media over a five year period, we aim to understand the themes and issues addressed ahead of the next UK general election in 2022. This timetable has been developed to maximise societal and policy impact. Five impact events have been planned to reach key stakeholders. This includes a symposium for senior media figures to reflect on our findings and consider the implications for how MSM report politics ahead of the 2022 general election. A Westminster event and fringe talks at Labour and Conservative party conferences will be organised, which will engage policy makers, politicians and journalists. Private briefings will be held with media regulators to discuss the editorial standards of alternative online political media sites and to consider the policy implications (see supporting letter and user review). Finally, an academic conference will bring together alternative media scholars, particularly PGR students, to encourage more research.

Planned Impact

Four dissemination events throughout the project will be organised:

1. In March 2021, a one day symposium in central London entitled 'Lessons for the MSM: Reflections on the rise of alternative online political media' will be held with senior journalists and editors from mainstream media invited. The symposium will allow us to reflect on our key findings to date, with a particular emphasis on the challenges mainstream media face from alternative online political media in how they present politics and engage with people. Since the media play a central role in informing and engaging people during election campaigns, the event will have an important impact on the health of UK democracy. We will encourage journalistic self-reflection and editorial rethinking of political coverage, which we will monitor, evidence and quantify at the end of the project. Rather than ignoring the world of alternative media, broadcasters will review the evidence of our research and engage with it across various editorial formats and platforms.

2. In July 2021, we will launch the findings of our study at a Westminster event in July 2021 before Parliament dissolves for summer recess, engaging with key stakeholders, such as politicians, policy makers and journalists. Before and after the event in Westminster, we will aim to make interventions into specific policy debates about regulating media in the digital age. By the end of the project, we would expect our research to have informed policy debates, with references to our blogs, presentations and academic outputs in Parliamentary reports and briefing papers. The rise of alternative media, for example, has also been associated with fake news. MPs launched an inquiry into fake news in January 2017 (but it finished prematurely due to the snap election in June). Our findings would be able to assess whether it was fair to label alternative media fake news outlets, and would answer questions the inquiry posed (but did not comprehensively answer).

3. Throughout 2020 and 2021, we will present our research findings to media regulators, including Impress and Ofcom. As the CfS indicates, several alt-left sites have signed up as members of Impress, which is an independent press regulator. Given its remit is to maintain editorial standards in journalism, including the accuracy of news, our findings will be relevant to their regulatory needs. We have a supporting letter from Impress, which includes an agreement to meet to discuss the policy ramifications of our research for regulating alternative online media. We will also engage with Ofcom, the UK's main regulator, during the project. Ofcom has indicated a strong interest in the project (evidenced by our user reviewer, who is the head of media literacy at Ofcom). By the end of the project we anticipate both Impress and Ofcom will have used our research to help formulate regulatory decisions and policymaking. So, for example, Impress can use the findings of our project to help them respond to specific complaint adjudications that might involve alternative media sites or to revise its code of editorial standards. Ofcom, meanwhile, has a statuary duty to promote media literacy, engaging with many different organisations and agencies.

4. At the very end of the project in October 2021, we will present our findings to fringe events at the Conservative and Labour party conferences, which attract politicians, journalists and party political members and will inform future policy decision making at a time when the new legislative season begins in November 2021 and a general election campaign in 2022 is looming. It is likely our research will re-orientate the campaign strategies of political parties, who have traditionally focused their attention on mainstream media, such as the BBC and ITV. In doing so, political parties will take alternative media platforms more seriously and the audiences that are moving beyond the MSM to engage with them.
 
Description We have collected over 3600 website articles and 14800 tweets spanning four years, in addition to over a thousand articles and thousands more tweets from the 2019 general election. Our preliminary findings from our content analysis include:

Significant evidence of mainstream media critique among alternative media website content and in their social media material, which we intend to explore in greater detail.
Emerging evidence that alternative media rely on mainstream media for sources and stories.
Emerging evidence that alternative media are primarily negative in their political coverage, preferring to attack their political opponents.
Evidence that alternative media are much more active during general election periods and that audience engagement may also increase.
Evidence that the alternative media environment leans much more to the political left in the United Kingdom, with emerging evidence this is in reaction to a right-wing mainstream press.

In addition, we have found:

Evidence that alternative media spokespersons have significant access to mainstream media broadcast programmes, which we intend to explore in greater detail regarding their agenda-setting power.
Evidence that certain sites, such as Another Angry Voice, have a significant social media reach, especially on Facebook.
Evidence that advertising is a crucial form of economic income for alternative media and that shifts in advertising revenue are damaging to their operations.
Exploitation Route It will inform regulatory judgments and public debate once the project findings are complete and analysed more closely
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

 
Title Alternative Media Articles 2015-2018 
Description This research database contains hyperlinks and PDFs of articles published by a nine alternative media publications between 2015-2018, comprising of three three-week sample periods and a five-week general election (2017) period. There are over 3600 items in this database. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This database will be used to underpin key publications from this research project, as well as inform further analyses yet to be undertaken. 
 
Title Alternative Media Twitter 2015-2018 
Description This research database contains raw tweet data, from Twitter's historical API, published by a nine alternative media publications between 2015-2018, comprising of three three-week sample periods and a five-week general election period. There are over 14800 items in this database. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This database will be used to underpin key publications from this research project, as well as inform further analyses yet to be undertaken. 
 
Description Editing a special issue of Digital Journalism entitled 'Contesting the Mainstream: Understanding Alternative News Media'. 
Organisation University of Oslo
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution IN THE CURRENT DIGITAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE, marked by declining institutional trust, political polarization and cultural warfare, the rise of new alternative news media has received increased scholarly and political attention. This special issue of Digital Journalism will make a significant intervention into debates about the role and impact of alternative media, enhancing our understanding of their position in the wider digital media landscape. In this special issue we take a relational approach to alternative news media, conceptualising it first and foremost as a proclaimed and/or (self-) perceived corrective, opposing the overall tendency of public discourse emanating from what is perceived as the dominant mainstream media in a given system (Holt et al. 2019, 862). This includes alternative news media propagating different political (e.g. left- as well as right-wing), religious (e.g. fundamentalist), or philosophical (e.g. animal rights) ideologies (Holt et al. 2019). Studies show producers of alternative news actively counter the perceived 'biased', 'corrupt' and 'lying' mainstream media (Figenschou & Ihlebæk 2019). They capitalize on the increasing dissatisfaction and disengagement with mainstream news media (Cushion 2018), often positioning themselves as 'better journalists' (Eldridge, 2018). At the same time, the professionalization of some alternative news media organizations challenges the dichotomy between what might be seen as 'alternative' and 'mainstream' media. This calls for further research on the current spectrum of alternativeness spanning from mainstream to alternative news media (Frischlich, Klapproth, & Brinkschulte, in press). The increased digitalization of public spheres prompts new and urgent questions about how people are informed about politics and public affairs. More people use sources outside of the established news media, particularly those with lower trust in the established news media (Newman et al, 2018). This calls for further contributions that avoid simplistic perceptions of these audiences and confront dystopian assumptions about effects with sound empirical and theoretical work. THIS SPECIAL ISSUE OF DIGITAL JOURNALISM aims to deepen our understanding of the role and impact of digital alternative news media by addressing macro (i.e. regulatory systems, media policy), meso (i.e. production and distribution processes, relations to professional organizations) and micro (i.e. content, content producers/'journalists', users) perspectives about the growth and character of alternative news media. Beyond welcoming research covering alternative news media in the context of populist sentiments and far-right movements (i.e. Brexit, Trump), this issue specially invites contributions from non-Western cultural and political contexts, including non-democratic societies, the Global South and East.
Collaborator Contribution Its a joint editing partnership
Impact Not yet
Start Year 2019
 
Description ICA Pre Conference 
Organisation University of Oslo
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaborating on an international conference about the role of alternative media and disengagement with mainstream media
Collaborator Contribution Joint
Impact No yet complete
Start Year 2019
 
Description The project team is collaborating with Oslo Metropolitan University, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Zurich with a cross-nation study or alt-media more widely 
Organisation Oslo Metropolitan University
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have developed collaborative research partnerships with these universities so that we are able to carry out a cross-national study as part of wider project. We have establish the teams, developed the research procedure, and are managing the data collection process.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners are collecting their own data at this time.
Impact We expect at least one journal article as an output but this is work in progress at this stage.
Start Year 2019
 
Description The project team is collaborating with Oslo Metropolitan University, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Zurich with a cross-nation study or alt-media more widely 
Organisation Queensland University of Technology (QUT)
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have developed collaborative research partnerships with these universities so that we are able to carry out a cross-national study as part of wider project. We have establish the teams, developed the research procedure, and are managing the data collection process.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners are collecting their own data at this time.
Impact We expect at least one journal article as an output but this is work in progress at this stage.
Start Year 2019
 
Description The project team is collaborating with Oslo Metropolitan University, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Zurich with a cross-nation study or alt-media more widely 
Organisation University of Zurich
Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have developed collaborative research partnerships with these universities so that we are able to carry out a cross-national study as part of wider project. We have establish the teams, developed the research procedure, and are managing the data collection process.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners are collecting their own data at this time.
Impact We expect at least one journal article as an output but this is work in progress at this stage.
Start Year 2019