Short but Critical?: How “Fake News” and “Anti-Elitist” Media Attacks Undermine Perceived Message Credibility on Social Media

Linda Bos, Jana Laura Egelhofer, and Sophie Lecheler
Communication Research 2023 50:6, 695-719

Abstract: Citizens increasingly turn to social media for information, where they often rely on cues to judge the credibility of news messages. In these environments, populist politicians use “fake news” and “anti-elitist” attacks to undermine the credibility of news messages. This article argues that to truly understand the impact of these criticism cues, one must simultaneously consider additional contextual cues as well as individual-level moderators. In a factorial survey, we exposed 715 respondents to tweets by a politician retweeting and discrediting a news message of which topic and source varied. We find that both the fake news cue and the anti-elitist cue have limited across-the-board effects but decrease credibility if the message is incongruent with voters’ issue positions. Our results thus offer a more optimistic view on the power of populist media criticism cues and suggest that source and confirmation heuristics are (still) stronger influences on citizens’ credibility evaluations.

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