23 January 2019 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Polarization, Populism and the News

What role does digital media play in the divide between “the people” and “the establishment”

By Courtney Suciu

Any of us who follow the news are aware of the divisive state of politics around the world. The partial federal government shutdown in the U.S., Brexit, the yellow vest protests in France, a national strike – and the violent response from authorities – in Zimbabwe all stem from clashes between fiercely, increasingly opposed political groups.

But such an observation begs us to consider a series of questions. For example, what do these conflicts around the world have in common? Who makes up the two sides in these clashes? Why do they seem to be reaching a boiling point now? Does the news media have a role in stoking tensions?

By taking a closer look at these concerns we can gain deeper insight into how evolving technology and new forms of media have empowered populist activism but also influenced political divisions – and why reliable journalism is more important than ever for sustaining democracy.

Rising political tensions in the United States

The PBS investigative reporting program Frontline1 traced the current political fracture in the U.S. to the rise of Democrat Barack Obama as the country’s first president of color.

According to the video, Obama’s presidential candidacy heightened the rift between “us” and “them,” as illustrated in the 2008 campaign. From the start, questions about the Illinois senator’s religion, political affiliation, ethnicity and citizenship plagued the runup to the election. News footage showed Obama’s Republican opponent John McCain, a member of the establishment with 25 years of congressional experience, attempting to correct and assuage riled, frightened participants at town hall events.

“I can’t trust Obama,” one senior woman told the Arizona senator. “I have read about him and he’s an Arab.”

“No ma’am,” McCain explained as he was booed by the crowd. “I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared [of].”

Episodes like this where McCain refused to criticize his opponent about his racial background made him look soft to potential voters who opposed Obama. On the other hand, as his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, was gaining a reputation as a tough-talking conservative voice, McCain’s diplomacy was costing him support from members of his own party.

McCain went on to lose the election, but Palin – who had dazzled anti-establishment Republicans at the national convention – became a hero of those who felt they’d been neglected by the “liberal elite” like Obama and moderate GOP members like McCain. Palin, according to Frontline, “became a populist crusader” and, arguably, a harbinger of the election of Donald Trump.

What do we mean by “populism”?

In the last decade or so, this kind of political splintering hasn’t been unique to the U.S. Populist movements around the globe – such as those mentioned earlier, including Brexit, yellow-vest protests in France and the national strike in Zimbabwe – have been shaking up politics-as-usual.

But exactly what do we mean when we talk about “populism”?

Populism is often spoken about within a context that presents it as a menace to democracy, consisting of marginalized people outside of normal politics, Peter C. Baker of The Guardian2 argued. Its meaning became confused, he explained, when in the 1980s and ‘90s it served as a euphemism for far-right parties “fixated on the issue of national and ethnic ‘purity,’ demonizing immigrants and minorities.”

Baker looked to academic discourse to uncover a more substantial and meaningful way to understand what it means. “Populism, specialists now agree,” he wrote, “is an ideologically portable way of looking at politics as a forum between ‘people’ and ‘elites.’” In general, populism assumes the philosophy that the people are good, the elite is bad.

This definition of populism applies to both left- and right-wing politics to include not only the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement that rose up out of the Republican Party after the 2008 presidential election, but also the 2011 leftist Occupy Wall Street protests. In both cases, the people were taking on the elites who they felt were working against their best interests.

However, “the people” are rarely a unified force.

Baker pointed out “the question of exactly who belongs in which group depends on the character of the populist movement…A populist ‘people’ can define itself by an ethnic identity it feels is under threat, but just as easily shared by a sense of being victims of economic exploitation.”

Anyone who doesn’t fit into a particular group’s notion of “the people” is easily dismissed as the political enemy, triggering polarization between “us” and “them” – which can mean any opposing groups, such as those who live in rural areas vs. those who live in cities, or people who have different religious affiliations, sexual orientations, education levels, ethnic backgrounds, etc.

As we’ll see, these divides are frequently exacerbated by the evolving media landscape and news reporting – which may be the real menace to democracy.

What role does the media play in the political divide?

In many ways, social media has been a boon for democracy. Remzie Shahini-Hoxhaj wrote in the Journal of Media Research3 of the “complex and efficient link between social media and populism,” noting how platforms such as Facebook enable activists to speak up against the establishment and easily share their messages with large numbers of people. Social media can help recruit participants for a cause, bring together people with similar interests and viewpoints and provide an outlet for them to voice their disagreements.

However, in her analysis of how social media has impacted the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, Shahini-Hoxhaj found that while it is a powerful tool for mobilization of opposition groups, it “serves little to inform the citizens on what is really happening in [the political] process.”

Rather, according to her research, Kosovo leaders – those considered populists as well as part of the establishment on both the left and right– deepened the political divide by using Facebook to manipulate public opinion with rhetoric and polarizing messages that became a main source for the news.

Of course, it’s not just political leaders who make conflict the focus of the news they produce. In her dissertation, How Do News Frames Influence Mass Political Polarization4, Youngju Kim analyzed how mainstream news reports “frame” their stories within conflict between political groups rather than directly on the issues. This is the case even with reporting on apolitical topics, such as issues in the sciences like genetically-modified foods.

Kim investigated how such framing was processed by news consumers and whether it served to intensify political polarization. (Spoiler alert: it does.) She found that presenting the news from this perspective can amplify the messages of politicians and lead audiences to side on an issue or policy in terms of their political identity, hampering the public’s ability to think critically and objectively about these topics.

This finding contradicts the vision of journalism’s role in democratic society presented in the book American Journalism and Fake News: Examining the Facts5: “At its best, journalism can serve as the cornerstone of democracy by facilitating informed self-government and supporting a shared civic life.”

But authors Seth Ashley, Jessica Robert and Adam Maksl pointed out the many challenges in journalism today. While the rise of digital media has helped “remove barriers to [information] access citizens once faced, allowing a greater multitude of voices to share their perspectives and participate in public conversations…this development has opened up the information floodgates.”

These changes have ignited a sort of populist movement within journalism, freeing the people from limited perspectives of the media establishment and empowering anyone to question and investigate issues and policy for themselves. However, the book pointed out, digital innovation has also resulted in a glut of content making it difficult to “separate the wheat from the chaff” where everything online – including commentary, talking points, opinion pieces, unverified “facts” and completely made up “news” – appears to be equally valid.

Further, this media landscape “makes it easier than ever to retreat into homogenous spheres where people can luxuriate exclusively in the ideas and opinions that are most aligned with their own,” according to the authors. As a result, audiences not only disappear into these “echo chambers” but many become increasingly dismissive and disparaging of news content from outside their own political camps, especially (on both sides of the divide) if it’s produced by the “media elite.”

What does this say about the future of journalism – and democracy?

So, how can we as news consumers be more vigilant in our media diets to avoid getting lost in a sea of echo chambers and false reporting?

There are certain characteristics of quality news reporting that we can look out for.

“Good journalism,” according to the authors of American Journalism and Fake News, “can be identified by its commitment to the ideals of verification, independence, transparency and accountability.”

“The picture is not entirely bleak,” they wrote, pointing to “’new media’ start-ups” which “continue to pop-up on the web all the time, and some have become well established and respected outlets alongside their traditional [print and broadcast] brethren” in producing reputable, fact-based original reporting.

But this puts the onus on us to seek out these sources, which can be a lot of work. Is it worth it?

American educator and philosopher John Dewey might be able to help us answer that question for ourselves. According to the authors, Dewey “argued for a greater commitment to the education of both citizens and journalists, and for ‘continuous reporting of the news as the truth, events signalized to be sure, but signals as hidden facts set in relation to one another, a picture of situations on which men can act intelligently.’”

They wrote, “Dewey believed in the potential of journalism to accurately inform and educate the public in a way that could facilitate effective self-governance."

It seems like it might be worth a try.

For further research

Discover a bounty of related, cross-searchable, cross-disciplinary multi-format resources on one platform. ProQuest One Academic includes:

ProQuest Dissertations & Thesis Global

Murphy, J. (2017). Beyond Brexit: The Rise of the International Populist Movement (Order No. 10279791).

Robichaux, R. (2017). American Political Party Polarization: The 2016 Presidential Election Cycle in Comparison (Order No. 10618950).

Thornal, K. (2015). Partisan Media and Polarized Politics: A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Partisan Selective Exposure and Political Polarization (Order No. 1593994).

Academic Video Online

Bowe, K. (Director), & Bowe, K. (Producer). (2017). Democracy Through the Looking Glass [Video file]. Cook Bowe Communications.

Video Age Productions (Producer). (2007). Ethics and the Media: The Problem of Bias [Video file].

Kirk, M. (Director), & Schonder, G., Gilmore, J., Bennett, P., Wiser, M., & Kirk, M. (Producers). (2017). Divided States of America: Part Two [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service.

Ebook Central: Academic Complete

Boeri, T., Mishra, P., & Papageorgiou, C. (2018). Populism and Civil Society.

Higgins, M. (2008). Media and Their Publics.

Stephens, M. (2014). Beyond News: The Future of Journalism.


    1. Kirk, M. (Director), & Schonder, G., Gilmore, J., Bennett, P., Wiser, M., & Kirk, M. (Producers). (2017). Divided States of America: Part One [Video file]. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Available from Academic Video Online or ProQuest One Academic.
    2. Baker, P. C. (2019, Jan 10). ‘We the People’: The Battle to Define Populism. The Guardian. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
    3. Shahini-Hoxhaj, R. (2018). Facebook and Political Polarization: An Analysis of the Social Media Impact on the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue. Journal of Media Research, 11(3), 71-93. ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
    4. Kim, Y. (2016). How Do News Frames Influence Mass Political Polarization? (Order No. 10186078). Available from ProQuest Central, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global and ProQuest One Academic.
    5. Ashley, S., Roberts, J., & Maksl, A. (2018). American Journalism and Fake News : Examining the Facts. Available from Ebook Central and ProQuest One Academic.

Learn more about an exciting new destination for multidisciplinary research, teaching and learning: ProQuest One Academic

Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu