How populism interfered with science communication during Covid – new study

“I don’t wear masks like him,” said Donald Trump of presidential candidate Joe Biden in 2020. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200ft away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Scepticism over the effectiveness of face masks is just one example of the former US President’s prolific dissent against scientists and doctors during the Covid pandemic – many of whom worked for the US Government.

But ignoring the advice of experts was not a political characteristic confined just to the US.

Now, an international team of researchers has launched a unique study into the effects of populist politics on health crisis communication across the globe.

Led by Loughborough University, the project analyses the way that the COVID pandemic was reported in four countries – the USA, Brazil, Poland and Serbia.

The team is looking at how populist leaders in those nations obstructed and influenced health crisis communication in order to skew information and polarize voters – creating distrust in scientific views and fueling an ‘us-and-them’ divide.

They are also examining the impact of populism on four aspects of pandemic communication, they are – government-led health crisis communication, media policy, media coverage, and public attitudes.

The aim is understanding of the impact of populist politics on health crisis communication, as well as improve crisis communication strategies and build more resilient media organisations.

Any recommendations will be developed and disseminated in collaboration with key organisations representing media regulators, communication professionals, and public service media.

Lead principal investigator Professor Sabina Mihelj, of Loughborough’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities, said: “As the COVID-19 pandemic disappears from the headlines and attention turns to new political crises, it is more important than ever for the scholarly community to continue asking difficult questions about the way the pandemic was handled, and about things that need to change to ensure individuals and communities are better prepared for any future public health crises.

“As our research has shown, the presence of populist politicians, and especially their tendency to adopt strategies of polarization, has the potential to undermine the ability of societies to achieve sufficient consensus in the face of a common health threat.

“This has important implications for anyone involved in health crisis communication, as well as for media regulators, policymakers, editors, and journalists.

“Our findings suggest that existing protocols for dealing with public health emergencies will have to be adapted and that new, more context-sensitive and dialogical communication strategies will be needed to tackle the politicization of public health measures in a crisis.

“Furthermore, it will also be important to bolster freedom of information protections during a crisis, as well as ensure greater visibility of trustworthy expert advice, especially online and on digital platforms.”

Pandemic Communication in Times of Populism (PANCOPOP) will run until 2024.

The team – which includes principal investigators and researchers focusing on each of the countries being scrutinized – will interview government officials from each nation, analyse communication policies and media content and survey population data.

A new video, which explains populism in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, also sets out the purpose of the project and explains how current, rigid models of crisis communication should be updated to make them resilient against new forms of public dialogue and polarized ways of thinking.

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Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2023 QS World University Rankings – the seventh year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2023 and 11th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.