Do we need an alternative medium

Alternative media on Facebook in the context of COVID-19

In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, so-called “alternative news media” of German websites did not spread so much blatant false reports and conspiracy theories on Facebook, but rather sharply oppositional and system-critical positions and populist representations. This is the conclusion of a white paper published on the preprint server arXiv - i.e. not yet subjected to peer review - by four communication scientists working with Thorsten Quandt from the University of Münster.

For the study, they collected almost 120,000 Facebook posts from January 7th to March 22nd, 15,000 came from 32 alternative news media. These were defined as online media offers that are staged as a dissenting voice to traditional media and allow alternative and system-critical voices to have their say. Around 20,000 of all recorded posts dealt with COVID-19, around 2,500 of them from alternative media. On the basis of these posts, the authors examined the reach of alternative media offers; they also analyzed the topics covered, the actors that were often mentioned or discussed, and the question of whether false news or conspiracy theories were spread.

According to the analysis, the alternative news media are contributing to the current uncertainty in the population, even if they are not primarily spreading blatant lies or misinformation. In most cases, the media examined tended to support certain opinions already present in the audience.

The proportion of contributions with conspiracy theories was also low, but these were prominently presented and disseminated by supporters of such theories on other channels, such as YouTube.

The authors emphasize the limitations of this study. Only posts on Facebook were considered, and only those alternative media that relate to Germany, and only a short period of time was analyzed.

The team of authors plans to publish a second study in a few weeks' time, in which the Facebook posts in the mass media will be analyzed. The two studies are then to be submitted in combination to a journal for peer review.




  • Prof. Dr. Mike S. Schäfer, Professor of Science Communication at the Institute for Communication Science and Media Research (IKMZ) and Head of the Competence Center for Higher Education and Science Research (CHESS), University of Zurich, Switzerland

  • Prof. Dr. Markus Lehmkuhl, Professor for Science Communication in Digital Media, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

  • Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, Senior Researcher for Digital Interactive Media and Political Communication, Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans Bredow Institute (HBI), Hamburg

  • Dr. Philipp Müller, Academic Councilor, Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Mannhein University

  • Dr. Joachim Allgaier, Senior Researcher, Chair for Technology and Society, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (RWTH)


Prof. Dr. Mike S. Shepherd

Head of the Competence Center for University and Science Research (CHESS), Institute for Mass Communication and Media Research (IPMZ), University of Zurich, Switzerland

"Regarding the context of the study: It is a very good team of authors from one of the most renowned communication science institutes in Germany, which has a lot of experience with computer-aided methods and automated content analyzes as they are used here."

“The text is a 'white paper' that was uploaded by the authors themselves in the 'arXiv' repository. This means that it has not yet been reviewed, approved and accepted for publication by specialist colleagues - this 'seal of approval' is missing. However, the authors have made the codes used and some data public. "

“According to the authors, the study examines the information pandemic that accompanies the actual Covid19 pandemic: the spread of fake news on social media. Facebook posts from 32 'alternative media' are examined. These are media that aim to correct traditional or 'mainstream' media. Examples are 'Russia Today', 'Tichy's Insight' or 'Junge Freiheit'. 2,446 Corona-related posts from these media were found between January and March 2020, which were compared with 18,000 posts from 'mainstream' media. "

"A computer-aided content analysis was used to determine the reach of the posts, which topics they address, which actors are mentioned and whether they contain fake news or conspiracy theories."

“The methods used are not overly innovative, but they are established in the field and are used competently: including web crawling for the collection of posts, 'Topic Modeling' to describe the topics or 'Named Entity Recognition' to identify the actors. Overall, these computer-aided methods are mainly used to structure interactions, topics and actors on Facebook. In addition, the authors provide primarily qualitative assessments - for example on the differences between 'alternative' and 'mainstream' media - without formal (significance) tests of these differences. "

“Detecting fake news is never easy. The authors' solution: They look for words that occur in connection with certain 'narratives' on fact checking sites in the texts of the' mainstream 'and' alternative 'media. This is feasible, but it brings with it two challenges: On the one hand, incorrect information is only recognized if it has already been dealt with on fact-checking sites. On the other hand, it is only recorded in this way whether texts fundamentally address fake news - but not whether they also adopt the content or disseminate it uncritically.

“Contrary to many publicly expressed fears, the study does not show any dramatic findings: 'Alternative media' post on Facebook much less frequently about Corona than the established media. Your posts also trigger fewer user reactions, although the difference to the established media is not so great in this regard. 'Alternative media' are critical of mainstream media, tinged more to the right or more to the left depending on their ideological positioning - that is to be expected. Probably the most interesting: The authors find almost no false news or conspiracy theories in the Facebook posts of the 'alternative media': Only 1.1 percent of all posts collected fall into these categories. The authors summarize accordingly: 'Our analysis does not reveal a notable amount of disinformation' (p. 17) or 'The analysis did not uncover a large number of posts sharing' fake news '' (p. 16). "

“The headline - 'Pandemic Populism' - is exaggerated. The text does not introduce an elaborate concept of populism and the methods used are not well suited to capturing populist argumentation patterns. Whether core features of populism appear in the texts would have to be investigated differently, for example with manual content analyzes, and this has also been done differently by other teams. The methods used in this article are more suitable for what the authors use: to map general structures, topics and actors in social media communication. "

On the question of what you can do to curb the influence of such alternative media and whether you should do anything at all:
“Three ways are typically discussed when it comes to curbing false information, conspiracy theories or the like and their providers: Firstly, political regulation, a way that is being attempted relatively rigidly in Germany with the Network Enforcement Act. Second, 'content moderation', i.e. the finding and filtering of problematic content by the platform providers themselves. This is done either by employees of the platforms, who are quickly overwhelmed by the amount of content to be processed, by tips from the user community, but this can lead to heated debates about which content is really right, or through algorithms, which are still rather crude instruments - axes rather than scalpels. A third way is a stronger education of the users and the development of media, platform and algorithm competence on the user side in order to recognize problematic contents or at least to know where one can check the reliability of contents. "

Prof. Dr. Markus Lehmkuhl

Professor for Science Communication in Digital Media, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

“I read the core message of the study as saying that the so-called alternative media do with Corona what they do with other topics. They mix objective facts with unverifiable interpretations in such a way that a certain worldview is confirmed. In my opinion, this result is not surprising, but very plausible. It should be noted, however, that the study deals with reporting trends, but these trends themselves were not 'measured'. Only the topics were identified empirically, but no higher-resolution variables such as frames or trends. "

On the question of how the influence of such alternative media on journalistic mass media is to be assessed:
“Basically, I assume that the influence of alternative media on traditional journalism is small. These offers create their own publics that work on the representations of the so-called mainstream media. In this respect, alternative media need the traditional ones, the reverse is certainly not true.

On the question of what you can do to curb the influence of such alternative media and whether you should do anything at all:
“As long as these media comply with the law, I see no reason to contain them. The more relevant question to me is how one can strengthen professional journalism. "

Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt

Senior Researcher for Digital Interactive Media and Political Communication, Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans Bredow Institute (HBI), Hamburg

To assess the study:
“The study is an interesting, well-founded and relevant contribution to the (socio-) scientific, but also societal debate about the COVID-19 pandemic. It is carried out methodologically clean (note: due to a lack of in-depth knowledge, I cannot assess the procedure for topic modeling and the co-occurrence analysis in detail), transparently documented and openly in dealing with the limits of my own findings. It helps us to better understand the meaning and the communicative mechanisms of 'alternative media' that make use of digital media and in particular Facebook. The explanatory value of the study will increase if further analyzes allow the analyzes carried out here to be compared for further periods, other platforms or other countries. "

On the importance of alternative media in general:
“Paradoxically, the alternative media offers that are the focus of the working paper are now themselves an established part of the digital public. There, professionally and editorially organized journalism has lost its undisputed position as a 'gatekeeper' who regulates access to the public through the selection and examination of information. Alternative media benefit from the fact that the barriers to providing and disseminating information of all kinds have significantly decreased. That alone does not guarantee them reach, but the mechanisms of (often algorithmically) personalized information filtering ensure that their offers can circulate in sometimes very narrowly defined interest groups or 'alternative epistemic communities' - for example among supporters of conspiracy theories. In addition, the digital media offer the possibility that even the comparatively small audience can be monetized through target group-specific advertising and thus an economic basis exists for such niche products. "

On the importance of alternative media for forming opinions in the pandemic:
“The working paper helps us to understand the importance of alternative media for forming opinions during and about the COVID-19 pandemic. It must be said that the study did not investigate the formation of opinion itself, as it did not ask about people's attitudes or attitudes towards current developments or upcoming decisions. However, it takes an essential prerequisite for this into account: The public communication of information and topics about COVID-19 and its consequences. The study allows some conclusions to be drawn: "

"1. The study classifies the importance of alternative media (during the observation period, on Facebook) - established journalistic offers therefore had a higher reach in absolute terms as well as on the average of individual pages or articles (only in terms of the average number of forwardings per article were alternative media on par). "

"2. The finding that the alternative media (during the observation period, on Facebook) distributed almost no 'fake news' - understood as 'totally of partially fabricated news items' (p. 16) - about Corona may seem reassuring at first glance. However, this does not mean that such disinformation used deliberately in circulation does not circulate elsewhere on Facebook or in other social media, such as a current analysis by a team of scientists from Oxford [1] or the steadily growing collections of relevant fact checks 'from editorial offices such as Correctiv or the' fact finder 'of the Tagesschau show. "

“And also: Even if explicit disinformation only accounts for a small proportion of reporting in alternative media, it can circulate from there in a 'secondary distribution system' (p. 16) and draw wider circles (this observation is not the focus of the empirical analysis , but is addressed at the end). Because if, for example, influencers close to conspiracy theory on YouTube or populist politicians pick up reports and distribute them to their own audiences, they are usually no longer questioned there. "

"3. The study clarifies the specific journalistic mechanisms of the alternative media: In their reporting, they embed aspects of the pandemic in 'alternative narratives' by taking up information and allowing actors to have their say who cannot get through the filter of the established media. The alternative media can stage themselves as a critical voice against the supposed 'mainstream': 'These outlets are (...) characterized by commenting and criticizing the orthodox, majority perspective (...). In some ways, alternative news media function much like a photo negative of what and how the large mainstream media reports on: the outlines are the same, but they are mirrored with reversed colors ‘(p. 17)."

On problematic aspects of alternative media in the pandemic:
“The journalistic strategy of concentrating on topics and views that established journalism does not deal with is not problematic per se, as it - basically speaking - helps to increase the variety of available information, voices and interpretations. But two developments are particularly worrying in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: First, it can be observed that alternative media offers also disseminate information that is not supported by scientific research. This can promote doubts and confusion among people, and in the worst case even lead to damage to health - for example, if, without medical evidence, it is assumed that a malaria drug could alleviate the viral disease. "

“And secondly, according to one of the main conclusions of the working paper, the individual reports from the alternative media are mostly to be seen in the context of overarching populist interpretive frameworks ('frames') and worldviews. The pandemic is interpreted `` through the glasses '' of the refugee debate, used as further evidence of an alleged failure of the political elite, or used to continue the practiced devaluation of activism against climate change. All in all, the alternative media strengthen political and social currents that ultimately only use a 'diversity of perspectives' and 'alternatives' as a rhetorical strategy, but actually want to fight liberal, open societies and a fact-based approach to the challenges of our time. "

Dr. Philipp Mueller

Academic Council, Institute for Media and Communication Studies, University of Mannheim

On the question of how the study should be methodologically assessed and whether the findings are surprising:
“I can only take my hat off to the team of authors.Here, an elaborate and methodologically impeccable research design was implemented within a very short time, which is very well suited to illuminating the discourse on the topic of coronavirus in German alternative media. Since there are still relatively few systematic studies on the content of alternative media with an affinity for populism in Germany, the study makes an important contribution to this field of research that goes beyond the current relevance of the 'coronavirus' event. "

“One of the main findings is that alternative media base their reporting on the topics of traditional news media and, above all, prepare and interpret the topics differently, with a stronger focus on populist criticism of the elite, which has a twist in the direction of conspiracy theories. On the other hand, the authors hardly find any evidence of the spread of so-called 'fake news', i.e. completely fabricated false reports. "

“Here, however, from my point of view, they argue against a straw man figure. The current state of research on the dissemination of 'fake news' in Germany and an exploratory look at alternative German media on the Internet do not, in my opinion, allow us to expect the dissemination of 'fake news' on a large scale on these pages. Previous studies have come to the conclusion that the phenomenon of 'fake news' is not particularly pronounced in Germany as a whole. And if individual examples of 'fake news' are found, then they do not come from the alternative media examined here, which often distort content, but ultimately continuously work in an editorial manner, but from sources that only simulate the existence of a permanent journalistic offer. Therefore, it does not seem surprising to me that there is hardly any 'fake news' in the true sense of the word on the pages examined. "

On the question of how the influence of such alternative media on public opinion is to be assessed:
“According to everything we know so far, alternative media with an affinity for populism have been an important component in the success of political (right-wing) populism in recent years. They spread the populist narrative of the people's rebellion against a corrupt elite, which right-wing populist parties like the AfD often use. Since these are journalistic offers and not official party organs, they give the right-wing populist narrative additional legitimacy. Because they act as independent actors in the spirit of the journalistic role self-image. For this it is of course important that they do not undermine their journalistic trustworthiness, which they at least have for the relevant audience. Spreading overly clumsy fake news could be very detrimental to this important role in spreading populist ideas. "

“However, at least in Germany, the corona pandemic is not the hour of right-wing populism. We can see this very clearly in the declining polls of the AfD. In a global health threat, people (initially) seek support and orientation in established social institutions. As the popularity of the governing parties is currently increasing, so is the use of traditional news sources from established providers increasing to an even greater extent. Therefore, the demand for alternative media that spread populist conspiracy theories on the pandemic is likely to be rather low and limited to a hard core of right-wing populist motivated and convinced conspiracy theoretic citizens. "

“Unlike the authors of the study, I would therefore rate the potential of alternative media with an affinity for populism as low in times of corona pandemia and would not want to speak of the risk of a 'pandemic' spread of conspiracy-based interpretations of the pandemic. However, this can of course change if, for whatever reason, there should be a change of mood in the assessment of government action by the population. We know from empirical studies that trust in politics and the media are closely linked. So if trust in government action should erode more strongly, this should also make itself felt in the use of information. A stronger focus on right-wing populist interpretations of the corona pandemic could be the result. However, I don't see this at the moment. "

Dr. Joachim Allgaier

Senior Researcher, Chair for Technology and Society, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (RWTH)

On the question of how the study should be methodologically assessed and whether the findings are surprising:
"I very much welcome the study, we urgently need the findings in order to better map and understand the information landscape on the subject of coronavirus / COVID-19. The authors themselves have already pointed out in the manuscript that the study has so far only examined a partial aspect of the current information landscape, namely the social media platform Facebook, within a relatively short period of time. These findings must now be related to further research results, for example relating to other social media platforms, journalistic communication, fictional formats, interpersonal communication and ideally also the reception and change in behavior. Similar to the corona crisis itself, we are still at the beginning of research into this topic and still need some research on the topic in order to arrive at a comprehensive picture. "

“The findings seem plausible and overall not very surprising. It was comparatively foreseeable that the so-called system-critical alternative media would use the corona crisis to attack government work and create confusion. The fact that alternative media misused as propaganda channels by other states spreads conspiracy myths and disinformation about other governments and nations has also just been shown in a British study [2]. At first glance, the proportion of extremely distorted and incorrect information on Facebook is comparatively low. But that has to do mainly with the composition of the sample. As stated in the manuscript, the extremely distorted and completely fabricated information is more likely to be disseminated via anonymized or 'fake' profiles or bots than via the official profiles. "

On the question of how the influence of such alternative media on public opinion is to be assessed:
“The direct range is probably fairly manageable, but as soon as you look at the networked versions, a different picture emerges. Already in the study it became clear that individual contributions from this segment can generate a very large reach. The alternative media are also very well networked with one another, that is, they quote and reinforce one another and thus in some cases manage to create a coherent worldview within their own readership. In some cases, however, other target groups are also reached through very professional and committed work in social media. A current study on the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 from England also pointed to the sometimes very large influence of individual, well-connected people with many followers in social media, such as celebrities or politicians [1]. Here, too, there are already some connections in Germany to the alternative media mentioned in the study. In addition, we know practically nothing about how the communication and networking in closed groups, for example on Facebook or in messenger services such as WhatsApp or Telegram, and what role the alternative media play here. "

On the question of what you can do to curb the influence of such alternative media and whether you should do anything at all:
“The basic idea of ​​a democracy is that there is diversity of opinion, that is one of its great strengths. This should also apply to alternative media that are critical to the system. In everyday life, however, it would be very helpful if the citizens were better informed about the direction of the media concerned and could better classify them in their statements. If, for example, contributions from the so-called alternative media are posted in WhatsApp or other groups for parents to point out that one does not have to adhere to the regulations on infection protection and that one can therefore let the children go to the playground because it If the pandemic in question either does not exist or if it is completely harmless, then it helps a lot to know that this is not about health classifications, but primarily about criticism of the government's actions. I think civil society actually has a duty here to behave more responsibly when handling information. A recent study from England [3] already shows that believing in conspiracy myths about COVID-19 also means that preventive health measures are less implemented, which, however, affect all citizens. "

On the question of what current examples of disinformation in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic are, in particular on YouTube:
“YouTube is a particularly popular channel for disinformation and especially conspiracy myths about COVID-19. In a recent study by the Reuters Institute [1] on misinformation and conspiracy myths surrounding COVID-19, however, the most undisputed misinformation was found on Twitter, followed by YouTube and Facebook. In Germany, for example, there has been a lot of attention for the distorted presentation and trivialization of the corona crisis by Wolfgang Wodarg, which is particularly reflected in the number of views on YouTube. The prelude to this, however, was a contribution in the ZDF broadcast Frontal21 [see about 4]. The reach of conspiracy myths on YouTube is sometimes enormous. For example, a German research team [5] has just shown that 19 particularly questionable YouTube videos on COVID-19 have been viewed around twelve million times in the last six weeks. In Great Britain, conspiracy myths about an alleged connection between 5G and the corona pandemic have led to 5G broadcasting stations being set on fire [6] and YouTube now wants to officially and actively curb the spread of this conspiracy myth [6]. In the USA there is currently a conspiracy movement that comes together under the acronym 'Film your Hospital'. Here videos of empty hospital corridors or parking lots are posted on the net, which are supposed to prove that there is actually no COVID-19 pandemic and no deaths [7]. In my opinion, YouTube has a particularly great potential for public science and health communication [8], which has not yet been used extensively. A first study [9] on the subject of COVID-19 on YouTube, for example, showed that of the hundred most viewed videos in the study, less than a third even mention recommended preventive measures. Nevertheless, YouTube is a particularly important platform, especially during the corona crisis. In the course of school closings, home office and avoidance of contact, it plays a central role in the search for information, education and entertainment not only for young people. The latest video on the corona crisis on the YouTube channel maiLab [10] or the detailed livestream on the corona crisis on the YouTube channel Breaking Lab [11] demonstrate that there are indeed very helpful offers. "

Information on possible conflicts of interest

Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt:"There are no conflicts of interest."

Dr. Philipp Müller: "There are no conflicts of interest with regard to the study to be assessed."

All other: No information received.

Primary source

Boberg S et al. (2020): Pandemic Populism: Facebook Pages of Alternative News Media and the Corona Crisis - A Computational Content Analysis. ArXiv.

References cited by the experts

[1] Burning JS et al. (2020): Types, sources, and claims of COVID-19 misinformation. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[2] Bright J et al. (2020): Coronavirus Coverage by State-Backed English-Language News Sources: Understanding Chinese, Iranian, Russian and Turkish Government Media. University of Oxford, Project on Computational Propaganda.

[3] Allington D et al. (2020): The relationship between conspiracy beliefs and compliance with public health guidance with regard to COVID-19. Center for Countering Digital Hate.

[4] Tin Fischer on Twitter.

[5] Basl C et al. (2020): The dangerous power of the corona myths. Daily News.

[6] The Guardian (2020): YouTube moves to limit spread of false coronavirus 5G theory.

[7] Goforth C (2020): Conspiracy theorists are now filming hospitals to ‘prove’ coronavirus is a hoax. Daily Dot.

[8] Allgaier J (2018): Science and Medicine on YouTube. In: Hunsinger J et al .: Second International Handbook of Internet Research. DOI: 10.1007 / 978-94-024-1202-4_1-1.

[9] Basch CH et al. (2020): Preventive Behaviors Conveyed on YouTube to Mitigate Transmission of COVID-19: Cross-Sectional Study. JMIR Public Health Surveill 2020; 6 (2): e18807. DOI: 10.2196 / 18807.

[10] maiLab (2020): Corona is just getting started. YouTube video.

[11] Breaking Lab (2020): Us against Corona - Your questions to Jens Spahn & Co! LIVE! YouTube video.