Projects

Current projects

Uninformed to Disinformed Citizens? – Comparing Western Information Environments

(SNSF Study, 2019-2022)

Edda Humprecht, Frank Esser & Anna Staender

in cooperation with Peter van Aelst (University of Antwerp)

This project aims to assess the extent of online disinformation (“fake news”) in Western Europe compared to the U.S. We aim to find out which actors spread false information, how disinformation is consumed and perceived, and which societal groups are most susceptible to being affected by it. Our international team based at the universities of Zurich and Antwerp analyzes the problem in six countries (Switzerland, Belgium, France, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.) from several perspectives.
The project starts with a representative survey in order to explore usage and exposure to online disinformation. In a second step, we conduct experiments with users most susceptible to disinformation to find out why participants read, share, and believe false information. Finally, we analyze which actors spread disinformation and how this kind of political information is communicated to users.
We will be able to provide empirical evidence on the spread and effects of online disinformation within different national contexts. Moreover, our results will inform policy makers and media professionals dealing with the question of how to combat the increasing disinformation on social media.

The project is endoresed by the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) of the University of Zurich.

The impact of media market opportunity structures on media choices. A comparative study on opinion-congruent media use in five countries

(SNSF Study, 2018-2019)

Frank Esser & Desiree Steppat

The project explores how citizens in five different countries encounter news online and offline regarding their own political preferences. Being confronted with a seemingly endless stream of opportunities to encounter news, citizens need to make up their minds about which news they choose or do not choose to use. Our research project thus aims at finding the role political preferences play in news choices by considering variation in media environments due to different national settings and polarization degrees. For this purpose, we will conduct a large-scale online survey with representative national samples in Denmark, Italy, Poland, the US, and Switzerland. It is anticipated that high-choice, partisan news environments such as the US will demonstrate higher levels of selective exposure than low-choice, non-partisan news environments such as Switzerland. In addition to being the first country comparison in this field of research, our project also contributes in a methodological regard: We will combine three different methods of measuring selective exposure that differ in their extent of directness (direct, semi-direct, and indirect), allowing for a systematization of different measurements in the field of selective exposure research.

Populist Online Communication in Europe: Self-Presentation, Media Representation, and Audience Reconstruction of Political Actors

(SNSF & COST study, 2016 - 2018)

Frank Esser, Sven Engesser & Sina Blassnig

Despite increasing scholarly awareness of the complex relation between populism and the mass media, the area of populist online communication has been largely neglected. The project aims to narrow this gap in the research by investigating how populists use the Internet as a political instrument. The project focuses on elections campaigns in three countries in Western Europe (France, Switzerland, and UK) and investigates online populism from three perspectives: the self-presentation of political actors on social media; their representation in journalistic online media; and the reconstruction of their messages through audience interactions, specifically with regard to online user comments. The project not only aims to distill the essence of populism from its multifaceted empirical manifestations but also to deepen our understanding of online political communication.

Publication:

Toril Aalberg, Frank Esser, Carsten Reinemann, Jesper Strömbäck, and Claes H. de Vreese (2016). Populist Political Communication in Europe. London: Routledge.

Populist Political Communication in Europe

Abstract: In light of ongoing social, political, and economic turmoil – and recent populist backlashes against incumbent governments – the study of populism has perhaps never been more important. Yet existing research on populism tends to neglect the key role of political communication. In light of this, the research in the new book Populist Political Communication in Europe is unique, covering work published in 24 countries. We show that on the side of populist actors we often find rhetoric that is emotional, includes blame attribution and scapegoats, uses straightforward and sometimes violent language, and presents simplistic solutions to problems. The essence of populist communication consists of references to the people, anti-elitism, and the exclusion of various out-groups. A special chapter is devoted to the role of the media. It identifies

  • characteristic patterns in how the media report on populist politicians,
  • favorable opportunity structures for the spread of populist rhetoric through the mass media
  • ambiguous consequences of media criticism for the spread of populism
  • examples showing the growing importance of new media in this regard

This chapter on the relationship between populism and the media is first-authored by Frank Esser and can be downloaded here (PDF, 390 KB).

Another chapter looks specifically at the conditions of populist political communication in Switzerland. It is co-authored by Nicole Ernst, Sven Engesser & Frank Esser an can be downloaded here (PDF, 288 KB).

Populism and the news media. A comparative and multi-issue approach

(SNSF Study NCCR Democracy, Phase III, 2013-2017)

Frank Esser, Sven Engesser, Florin Büchel & Nicole Ernst

The project is embedded in the NCCR phase III module 2 The Appeal of Populist Ideas and Messages. Understanding populism in the context of de-nationalization and mediatization. The aim of the whole module is to study populism in the political arena (i.e. political actors and their outlets), in the media arena (i.e., news outlets as unintentional accomplices), and in the public (i.e., populist reasoning and attitudes, effects of populist communication on public opinion). The project studies populist communication and the news media in a comparative and multi-issue approach. The guiding research question of the project is “To what degree do mass media carry, shape and/or transform populist issues, frames, arguments, actors and communication?”. Therefore media populism can be understood as the media’s use and dissemination of certain elements of populist ideas and styles. To disentangle the complex interactions of journalists and populist actors and ideas, journalists are expected to perform three main roles: Journalists can act as (1) gatekeepers for populist political actors and their messages, (2) interpreters of political actors, evaluating their behaviors, and (3) originators of populist messages themselves. Regarding content analysis of media output in 11 countries, the project will focus on populist communication and the self-presentations of various politicians across different media channels. Along with news-oriented mass media formats, the project analyzes populist communication on social media and political talk shows, because politicians can present themselves there with less influence and fewer restrictions from media actors and journalistic practices, which could be beneficial for the degree of populist communication.

Completed projects

Comparing Online News Under Different Market Conditions: A cross-national study of online news performance

(SNSF Study, 2012-2015)

Edda Humprecht & Frank Esser

The last decade has seen a dramatic shift from print to online media in many Western countries. The emergence of the Internet has reshaped how people use and how journalists produce the news. This transition has been accompanied by economic troubles as “old” media find their traditional business model threatened by the Internet and “new” media start-ups are still searching for working business models. This project aims to answer the question of which economic conditions are most conducive to high news performance in online media. We analyze the relationship between economic conditions and online news performance in different market environments, namely, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the US. This project answers the research question of which constellations of economic conditions (e.g., ownership type, revenue structure, competitive situation) are most favorable for high news performance (e.g., hard news, pluralism, analytical depth, accountability reporting, and audience participation).

Mediatization of political reality: Implications of media-centered reporting styles for democracy

(SNSF Study NCCR Democracy, Phase II, 2009-2013)

Frank Esser, Andrea Umbricht & Florin Büchel

This project studies an important factor in the process of mediatization of politics that is seen as its driving force: media logic. Media logic refers to how politics is represented and defined in the news media. Media logic is characterized by specific narrative techniques, presentational styles and production formats that news organizations use succeed in the society-wide struggle for people's attention. These frames and formats influence the readers' or viewers' political worldviews. The logic of news-making and policy making do not always coincide, and sometimes openly clash. The project investigates whether the media content of political affairs today is governed by a media logic or a political logic (serving the needs of political actors, institutions and democracy as a whole). In an analysis across several countries representing different types of western media systems, the project also assesses the extent to which political news coverage today is characterized by media logic.

Mediatization of political attitudes: becoming a democratic citizen in a multi-media environment

(SNSF Study NCCR Democracy, Phase II, 2009-2013)

Frank Esser & Ruth Kunz

It is often assumed that the media plays a key role in shaping political attitudes. However, our knowledge of the media's role in the political socialization process is remarkably thin. This project addresses the fundamental question of how young people develop into democratic citizens in a society influenced by entertainment-oriented media and mediatized politics. How do they develop democratic attitudes, values and civic engagement? In particular, this project focuses on current changes in the political, media and family environment and their consequences for young people's participation in democracy:

  • Established agents of political socialization, such as family, school and parties, have been supplemented by new agencies, such as anti-globalization or environmental movements, or consumer political movements, which are less stable, more

issue-oriented and more dependent on communication-based networks.

  • The role of the traditional mass media, such as newspapers and television, as providers of political information and stimulants of political participation, has changed. Television has become more infotainment-oriented and free newspapers and online news have displaced daily newspapers and television newscasts.
  • Changing society under the influence of globalization, individualization and mediatization.