Populism and its supporters: A study on the perception and use of media


Studies reveal that populist supporters tend to consume more news compared to non-populist citizens. This article discusses both how and why populist supporters consume news and how they navigate their emotions in the process.

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

Populist supporters often have a complex relationship with journalism (for example, criticizing elites [including mainstream media] yet consuming news excessively). Clara Juarez Miro of the University of Vienna conducted 33 in-depth interviews with right- and left-wing populist supporters from the United States and Spain to examine their news habits and how they navigate the current media landscape of information overload. The study is based on the tenets of folk theories, which can be used to assess how individuals interpret their media consumption and how this ultimately influences their news consumption. Interviews were conducted by video call between April and October 2021 and then analyzed applying an inductive method.

Political figures such as the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, and the leader of the Spanish right-wing populist party Vox, Santiago Abascal, attract a great deal of social attention with their striking rhetoric and play a significant role in shaping today's political landscape. Communication scholars observe how this emotional rhetoric, originating from populist politicians, is often reflected in the opinions of their supporters. For example, they often share the view that mainstream media are biased or partisan and do not act in the interest of the "people." Although supporters are skeptical of traditional news media and perceive them negatively, it is nevertheless evident that they tend to consume more news, including from said mainstream media, compared to non-populist citizens.

In a study conducted by communication scientist Clara Juarez Miro she investigated the complex relationship between populist supporters and news journalism. For this purpose, she conducted 33 in-depth interviews with right-wing and left-wing populist supporters from the United States and Spain between April and October 2021. In the interviews, she explored how these individuals assess their news habits and how they navigate today's media landscape, which is defined by an overabundance of information.

Low trust in media does not lead to news avoidance among participants, but rather to more exposure

Consistent with previous research, participants shared negative attitudes with populists and expressed a low level of trust in mass media. However, they consumed news extensively, with emotions playing a major role in their media consumption. While participants expressed negative feelings about news in general, they enjoyed the feeling of always being up to date on current and political events. Three overarching folk theories emerged in this context from the interviews with respondents about media consumption:

"Everything is biased"

Participants felt that traditional media are fundamentally biased and often go against their preferred representatives and ideas in their reporting. This "bias" in the news would limit them from feeling well informed. Therefore, they consume different news sources with different viewpoints to compensate for potential knowledge gaps. Despite their general rejection of the news media, participants tolerated the existing bias in sources that represented their views.

"It’s a way of seeing what other people think"

Populist supporters actively use social media to explore public opinion on various issues. Social media helps them to find members of their community ("the people"), to compare themselves with them, and to examine public opinion trends among political opponents. By accessing overarching online communities, they felt empowered to fulfill the ideal of informed citizens. However, this conclusion was often based on the assumption that other people are more likely to be influenced by the media than themselves.

"It's a pleasurable news source"

Participants explained the extent to which targeted use of social media and ideologically consistent news helped them regulate their mood. For example, one respondent used Facebook for news reception to avoid unpleasant news that she cannot easily skip when watching ordinary TV news. Another respondent made use of translation software to consume news from abroad and compare it with news from his own country. Through this deliberate use of a variety of media and news sources, populists not only pursue their ideal of being well-informed citizens, but also protect their emotional state.

In light of the results, the scholar offers the following recommendation to journalists: "The study suggests that it is important that news organizations consider the emotions and agency of their audiences, including populist supporters, to maintain a pluralistic democratic society where people continue to rely on news to enhance their sense of being informed."

Publication details

Juarez Miro, C. (2023). "Everything is biased": Populist supporters' folk theories of journalism. The International Journal of Press/Politics. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/19401612231197617

Clara Juarez Miro is an University Assistant (postdoctoral researcher) in the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna since June 2022.