Václav and Sabina, you run a research project called The Illiberal Turn. As our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program, I first would like your assessment of the term—adjective and noun—“illiberal/illiberalism.” In your view, why does this term allow us to capture the current political and societal trends we are studying better than other terms; for instance, “populism,” “national-populism,” “far right,” etc.?
All these terms are relevant and useful for the analysis of the contemporary political landscape in many countries around the world, but they provide only partial answers to the question of what is going on with democracy today, and especially with regard to Central and Eastern Europe, the region that we are focusing on in our project. Several of these countries have recently been going through a process of significant democratic backsliding, gradually dismantling the very foundations of liberal democracy as it has been established there following the 1989 transition.
When speaking of “illiberal trends,” many scholars point to the systematic assault on the system of checks and balances, decreasing independence of key democratic institutions—including the media—or the removal of protections for minorities, and this is exactly what we have been seeing nowadays in countries such as Hungary and Poland. As Yasha Mounk says, it ends with “democracy without rights”—[democracy] stripped of liberal institutions that protect individual and minority rights. In other words, illiberalism is not just an equivalent of populism, although it often shares its rhetoric; it is an umbrella term that refers to the attempts to decouple democracy from constitutional liberalism, as well as to the exclusionary political programs promoting social conservativism and ethno-nationalism, and aimed against minorities and civil liberties.
However, in our project, we don’t focus primarily on the political actors; instead, we turn to media audiences across four Central and Eastern European countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Serbia), and explore how their attitudes—both liberal and illiberal—are being informed by their news media diets, and what is the relationship between the changing information ecosystem and the rise of illiberalism in general.
Indeed, you have explored how exposure to some media impacts attitudes on immigration in the Czech Republic: could you tell us more about your findings?
One of the most important contributions of this study is that it provides evidence of an actual causal impact of certain kinds of media on people’s immigration attitudes, unlike much of the existing research that relies on simple correlations between these variables. Our research shows that exposure to commercial television increases anti-immigration attitudes and the likelihood of people voting for populist parties, while exposure to public service TV weakens negative attitudes toward immigration. This corresponds with results from other studies; however, ours was the first one from within this region, and it drew on data measuring real media exposure, rather than on self-declared consumption.
What we did not expect to find was that the more diverse was people’s media diet, the more hostile were their attitudes toward immigrants; this challenges the popular notion that a diversity of media consumption can act as an antidote to enclosed information spaces, or “echo chambers,” in which attitudes against immigrants (as well as other illiberal attitudes) are formed and strengthened. Our results indicate that if a substantial proportion of the news media scene is amplifying anti-immigration rhetoric—as the Czech media scene tends to do—then a greater diversity of news sources is no guarantee of [the public’s] being shielded from negative stereotypes about migrants.
You have also been investigating public trust in both private and public media in several Central European countries. How does conservative (for instance, anti-LGBT+) support for authoritarian leadership correlate with anti-immigration feelings? Are they always observed together, or can we offer a more granular reading, depending on the media and the country?
Overall, media are rather distrusted across our four countries—the most in Serbia and Hungary, where only 11 and 13 per cent of the population say they trust news media, respectively. On the level of individual brands, those that are most trusted are the independent ones (including the public service broadcasters in the Czech Republic), while the government-controlled media are on the opposite side of the spectrum. However, our qualitative analysis indicates that the normative foundations of media trust—that is, the bases on which people decide which media to trust—can differ significantly, with some participants trusting the media because they thought they were independent, balanced, and/or professional, while others based their trust primarily on the fact that their preferred news sources were aligned with their own political and ideological views.
In most countries—the Czech Republic being an outlier—the media scene tends to be heavily polarized: rather sharply divided between pro-government and anti-government news outlets. This polarization is then mirrored in the relationship between news consumption and political attitudes. As we found out, heavier consumers of news media that are under strong political influence or more pro-government tend to display more illiberal attitudes (for example, more opposition toward immigration and gay marriage, or less support for representative democracy) and are also more prone to believe in conspiracy theories than those who are relying more often on independent and opposition sources.
These patterns are observed across all four countries. However, we found some interesting differences in the relationship between the use of digital platforms and conspiracy beliefs. In those countries with the lowest level of media freedom, users of social media and messaging apps tend not to believe government-propelled conspiracy theories, indicating that despite all the legitimate concerns about online disinformation, digital platforms might serve as a counter-balance to the government-controlled part of the news media ecosystem.
Part of your fieldwork was conducted during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Did the fact that people were locked down at home, resulting in a higher consumption of news and especially of television, impact their political views? Did it accentuate polarization, or, on the contrary, did it create a feeling of unity vis-à-vis the crisis?
We found out that in countries with higher levels of polarization, lower levels of media independence, and higher politicization of the pandemic—Hungary and Serbia in particular—people were considerably more divided in their opinions on the pandemic and generally more distrustful of government communication. This has included expert communication as well, because experts were perceived as lacking in independence or as directly subordinated to the government. On the other hand, we have seen more unity in citizens’ responses to the pandemic in the Czech Republic and in Poland, at least in the initial stages of the lockdown. In other words, our observations suggest that the declining independence and polarization of the media has a real impact on people’s willingness to accept and support government responses to the pandemic—which can obviously have serious, life-affecting consequences.
The Polish presidential elections were held during the pandemic. How would you assess the impact of the sanitary conditions on the election campaign and lockdown? Would you confirm the general impression that the authoritarian regime used the pandemic to consolidate their power and limit further public freedoms and independent institutions?
This has been a pattern across various Central and Eastern European countries, where, according to many observers and international organizations, the governments have attempted to use the crisis for a power grab, especially in Hungary and Serbia. In Poland, the government tried to take advantage of the pandemic by changing the rules for the upcoming presidential election in a way that would benefit the incumbent candidate, but it created chaos and contributed to the breakdown of trust between people and the government. We think it is plausible to assume that this breakdown could have contributed to the dramatically harder impact of the second wave of the pandemic in autumn—and not just in Poland, but also in some other Central and Eastern European countries where the governments have tried to politicize the pandemic and abuse their powers, including Hungary and Serbia.
What are the next steps for your research? What do you think is missing in our knowledge of the “illiberal turn” in Central Europe? What avenues for comparative studies do you see with Western Europe, Russia, Turkey, the United States?
The general ambition of our research has been to highlight the importance of the role of the media in the “illiberal turn” as a crucial conduit and enabler of the spread of illiberalism in the region. It is probably fair to say that while the rise of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe has already attracted significant scholarly attention, existing research has not been very much interested in the role of the media in this context—and our project seeks to fill this gap, while also inspiring more work in this direction. We are indeed hoping our research on the media and the illiberal turn might inspire more comparative work beyond just this region, particularly given that the spreading of illiberal ideas, and the process of democratic deconsolidation, is certainly not constrained to Central and Eastern Europe.
We also need to learn more about people’s actual news consumption practices, especially with regard to online sources and social media. Too often, empirical research pays attention to a very limited segment of the media environment, and it focuses on people’s relationship with particular media types (especially social media) and news brands in isolation from others. However, we know from our research that people consume news from multiple different channels at the same time, and arguably people are forming their attitudes and opinions based on their exposure to all of these, but also based on information from non-media sources, like friends and family. This is something we are trying to unpack in our data right now, using the concept of “media repertoires,” and examining how different types of media repertoires are linked to different “repertoires of illiberalism” emerging from people’s observed values and attitudes.
Václav Štětka is Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at the School of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, where he has been working since 2016. Having started his academic career at Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic, he was Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford between 2009-2013, working on an ERC-funded project Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Between 2013-2016 he was leader of the Political Communication Research Group (PolCoRe) at Charles University in Prague. His research interests encompass political communication and the role of new media, media systems in Central and Eastern Europe, media ownership and journalistic autonomy. Václav was a member of the Executive Board of ECREA (European Communication Research and Education Association) between 2015-2016, and since 2016 he is Vice-Chair of the Political Communication Section of ECREA.
He is currently an active member and contributor to several international research projects and networks, including Digital News Report (Oxford University), Media Pluralism Monitor (European University Institute in Florence), or the Network of European Political Communication Scholars (NEPOCS). His previous research project “The Role of Social Media in Political Communication and Civic Participation in the Czech Republic” (2013-2016), funded by the Czech Research Foundation, was awarded the Chair’s Prize for outstanding research outcomes.
Sabina Mihelj is Professor of Media and Cultural Analysis in the School of Social Sciences, Loughborough University. Sabina’s research focuses on the comparative study of media cultures across both traditional and new media, with a focus on nationalism, identity, memory, and Eastern and Central Europe. She has written extensively on the relationship between mass communication and cultural identity, on comparative media research, and on the role of media and popular culture in the Cold War.
Her latest book is entitled From Media Systems to Media Cultures: Understanding Socialist Television (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Sabina’s research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, the Norwegian Research Council, and the Ministry of Science and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia. She is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College, and sits on the editorial boards of several international media and cultural analysis journals. Over her time at Loughborough, Sabina served as Programme Director for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in communication and media studies. She currently acts as School lead for Loughborough’s REF2021 submission to the D34 panel, and leads the Media, Memory and History strand of the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture.