A Portrait of Alternative COVID-19 News Users – Who They Are, What They Read and How They Access It

de León Williams, Ernesto Emiliano; Makhortykh, Mykola; Adam, Silke (2022). A Portrait of Alternative COVID-19 News Users – Who They Are, What They Read and How They Access It (Unpublished). In: ECPR General Conference. Innsbruck. 22-26 August 2022.

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With their promotion of COVID-19 mis/disinformation and polarizing hyperpartisan interpretations of the pandemic, consumption of alternative anti-establishment new sites has dire implications for society, impacting both people’s willingness to engage in COVID-19 protective behaviour, as well as their political attitudes. While past work has provided valuable insights into alternative news, research has focused on either content characteristics with little information on users, or is solely interested in users, with limited (or self-reported) information on content. To remedy this, our work melds individual-level political attitudes to alternative content consumption by employing a unique combination of survey and online behaviour tracking that captures participant’s browsing activities in Switzerland. Such a design allows us to capture the ‘long tail’ of obscure alternative news sites in our increasingly fragmented information diets, and the content viewed (rather than just URLs visited). Our work therefore attempts to move from scattered sketches of alternative content consumption to a rich portrait of such news users.

We contribute to the literature by expanding past findings on individual attitudes, content consumption patterns, and intermediaries to alternative COVID-19 news. On individual attitudes, we document how alternative news users differ significantly from the rest of the population primarily in their lack of trust: both political trust and trust in commercial media are significantly related to COVID-19 alternative news use. On content consumption habits, we show how these individuals’ consumption of mainstream COVID-19 news differs from the rest of the population: participants consuming such content are a lot less likely to access other, non-alternative, sources of information, providing support for echo-chamber hypotheses. On intermediaries to alternative news, we offer insights into the navigation patterns that result in alternative COVID-19 news consumption. By granularly tracing hyperlinked-domains between website content HTMLs, we show that social media was by far the most common access point to alternative sites, far outpacing the role that social media played for mainstream media. Our estimates suggest that social media is a more pervasive entry point to alternative news than previously documented.

Lastly, the paper argues for a need to understand alternative news usage through a distinct, un-routinized consumption logic. In line with theories of media habits and patterns of news access, we show that those accessing mainstream COVID-19 news tend to do so either through social media or directly accessing new sites, but rarely through a combination of both. Alternative media, however, stands in stark contrast to this pattern, with those accessing alternative news on COVID-19 through social media also frequently visiting these sites directly. We argue that this un-routinized logic needs to be understood as a defining characteristic of alternative news consumption in the high choice media environment, where a desire for content providing alternative interpretations of the pandemic trumps routinized media consumption habits.

By bringing content and users’ characteristics together, our analysis draws a rich portrait of people using alternative anti-establishment news. Lack of political and media trust, a limited variety of news sources, and non-routinized access (mostly based on social media channels) characterizes these alternative news users.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


03 Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences > Social Sciences > Institute of Communication and Media Studies (ICMB)

UniBE Contributor:

de León Williams, Ernesto Emiliano, Makhortykh, Mykola, Adam, Silke


000 Computer science, knowledge & systems > 070 News media, journalism & publishing
300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology
300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 320 Political science




Mykola Makhortykh

Date Deposited:

17 Aug 2022 08:19

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:22

Uncontrolled Keywords:

news consumption, alternative media, digital news, COVID, anti-establishment



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