"Lying press" and "fake news" accusations: Populist communication and its impact on our trust in the media and in politicians


Does our trust in the media decline when populist politicians accuse news media of spreading fake news? A new study conducted at the University of Vienna and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam uses an online experiment to show how populist communication and media disenchantment are tied together.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉ adriana.palloks@univie.ac.at)

These days, it is no longer considered news when populist politicians accuse opposition news media of spreading disinformation or fake news. However, there is limited empirical research on the impact of such public accusations. Researchers at the University of Vienna and VU Amsterdam used an online experiment to investigate the impact of accusations of "lying press" by populist politicians on general media trust and on people's attitudes toward the politicians communicating those accusations. 1,330 Austrian participants were first asked about their sociodemographic and their populist attitudes (if they had any). The participants were finally divided into one of three groups: two experimental groups and one control group. Each group was presented with a series of fictional tweets on a political topic, either accompanied by disinformation accusations or not. Their reactions to the tweets were then captured in a digital questionnaire and compared with each other.

The buzzwords "lying press" or "fake news" are difficult to exclude from today's political debates. In Austria too, several FPÖ party members have made accusations of disinformation against the news media. Which effects do such public accusations have on the media trust of recipients and their attitude toward the politicians making the accusations?

Politicians enjoy a high degree of attention in our society due to their public positioning and are usually considered opinion leaders. There is ample evidence that their public criticism of media reinforces distrust of media, in part because citizens take the criticism literally instead of evaluating the media and its content themselves. This phenomenon has intensified with the emergence of social media: for many people, the majority of their news consumption takes place on social platforms, where news stories are often shared and accompanied by an evaluative comment. Researchers found that in many cases people only read the comment and the short preview of the article. Especially negative comments can attract a lot of attention and shape the reader's attitude toward the shared content.

Public criticism of the mass media as a common communication tactic used by populists

Attacks on the media are considered an integral part of populist communication. While there are legitimate concerns about the spread of disinformation, many populist politicians exploit these concerns by trying to publicly discredit their media critics.

The effect was exemplified through an online experiment

In their study, researchers from the University of Vienna and VU Amsterdam examined the effects of public fake news accusations made by politicians on the perceptions of recipients. The study is of great importance, as there has been little research in this area. In an online experiment with 1,330 Austrian participants, the researchers assessed participants' reactions to the Twitter page of a fictive politician. The use of a fictive political person makes it possible to determine the impact of the Twitter message regardless of partisan or ideological leanings. Respondents were initially asked about their sociodemographic and populist views (if they had any), and then divided into one of three groups: experimental groups 1 and 2 were shown a number of tweets including disinformation accusations. Tweets in group 1 featured the buzzword "fake news"; tweets in group 2 were tagged with a disclaimer that the information in the shared article was "intentionally factually incorrect." The control group received tweets without disinformation accusations from the politician. After the viewing, they shared their reactions in a questionnaire.

Politicians influence how we perceive news

Co-study author Jana Laura Egelhofer states: "Politicians in many countries accuse the media of spreading disinformation or 'fake news'. The study results show that such disinformation accusations can lead to a decline in citizens' trust in the accused media outlet and the perceived correctness of its reporting." It is surprising that this effect was found after only one exposure conducted among the participants. Since such accusations by politicians against the media are commonplace, the researchers predict that in the long run they could become a threat to journalists as providers of factual information.

Populism weakens general media trust – but not those who want to discredit the media

"Individuals with strong populist attitudes additionally seem to generalize these accusations to the media as an institution and reduce their general media trust. At the same time, disinformation accusations do not seem to have an impact on trust in those politicians who use such allegations", Egelhofer explains. The participants indeed viewed the posts with accusations of disinformation as a manipulative act by the tweeting (fictive) politician, however, it is paradoxical that it had no influence on the perceived trustworthiness toward him. Politicians could therefore make such accusations without having to fear retrospective consequences in the attitude of their electorate.

Is the "fake news" label enough to lower media trust?

Ultimately, the study offers clarity on the consequences of the – now universally encountered – "fake news" term. Regardless of whether the buzzword appeared in the tweet or whether the news article was characterized as intentional false news, no difference was evident. Accordingly, the disinformation accusation of the politician ultimately influences people's perception of news media and the information they provide, while the use of "fake news" cannot be identified as a primary driving factor.

The study illustrates the impact politicians have on citizens. Jana Laura Egelhofer emphasizes that further research is needed, to replicate and corroborate these findings.

Publication Details

Egelhofer, J. L., Boyer, M. M., Lecheler, S., & Aaldering, L. (2022). Populist attitudes and politicians' disinformation accusations: Effects on perceptions of media and politicians. Journal of Communication. Advance online publication. doi:10.1093/joc/jqac031 (Image © memyselfaneye

Jana Laura Egelhofer was an University Assistant (postdoctoral researcher) in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna until November 2022. Since December, she is a researcher within the Munich Science Communication Lab (mscl) at the LMU Munich, Germany. (Image © Jana Laura Egelhofer)


Ming Boyer is an University Assistant (postdoctoral researcher) in the Department of Government at the University of Vienna. (Image © Ming Manuel Boyer) 

Sophie Lecheler is Professor for Political Communication research in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. (Image © Leedina Portraits)


Loes Aaldering is Assistant Professor for Political Science and Public Administration at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (Image © Loes Aaldering)