How Populism Affects Crisis and Risk Communication

In this exclusive interview, Professor Sabina Mihelj of Loughborough University covers the intricate relationship between media, politics, and populism.

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Dear reader,

In this special edition of the Wag The Dog newsletter, I'm delighted to have an insightful conversation with Professor Sabina Mihelj, a distinguished academic from Loughborough University.

With a wide-ranging background spanning Slovenia, Hungary, and Germany, Professor Mihelj has made important contributions to the understanding of the interplay between media, politics, and culture, particularly in semi-democratic, authoritarian, and post-authoritarian contexts.

Our discussion will focus on her latest research findings on the impact of populism on crisis communication, a topic that is more important than ever.

Drawing on her extensive studies in Brazil, the US, Poland, and Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Mihelj provides a nuanced analysis of how populist leaders and attitudes influence the strategies and effectiveness of risk communication.

We examine the challenges posed by the politicisation of science, the role of media politics, and the spread of misinformation. Professor Mihelj also provides practical strategies for risk communicators to counter these problems and ensure that the public receives reliable information.

Her findings highlight the importance of working with media organisations, using social media effectively, and building public trust in expert institutions.

This interview is a must-read for anyone involved in risk and crisis communication, as it provides valuable insights into the complexities of populism.

Join me to learn what long-term strategies we need to prepare for future emergencies in an increasingly polarised world!

Take a cup of coffee, tea or your favourite drink. This is a long, but interesting read to start the weekend 😅

Table of Contents

Understanding Populism's Impact on Risk Communication

Philippe: How have you observed the rise of populism affecting the strategies and effectiveness of risk, crisis, and emergency communication across different countries?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Our research1 focused on four countries led by populist leaders at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—Brazil, the USA, Poland, and Serbia.

We used a range of methods, including interviews with professionals involved in emergency risk communication during the pandemic, such as government officials, health experts, and journalists.

We also conducted media policy analysis, a representative population survey, and analysed news coverage over three years, from January 2020 to December 2022.

This comprehensive approach allowed us to examine the impact of populism from multiple perspectives, not just the influence of populist leaders and politics but also the role of populist attitudes among the population.

We studied how these dimensions influenced government-led crisis and risk communication, media policy, access to information, news coverage, and citizens' attitudes towards the virus and mitigation measures.

Philippe: That sounds thorough. What differences did you observe between these countries?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: All four countries represent cases of right-wing populism, but they had different approaches to the pandemic, which gave us a good sense of the range of effects populism can have depending on the context.

In Brazil and the USA, populist leaders dismissed the seriousness of the health threat and sought to build political support by attacking experts and public health institutions. In contrast, in Poland and Serbia, populist leaders initially embraced scientific expertise and presented themselves as defenders of the people against the health threat.

However, they later pulled back from expert recommendations when these became politically inconvenient and used the emergency to enhance their power and limit oppositional voices.

Challenges Posed by Populist Leaders

Philippe: From your perspective, what are the main challenges that populist leaders introduce when it comes to spreading accurate and timely information during crises?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: We identified three main challenges present in all four countries, albeit in slightly different forms and to varying degrees. The first challenge is the excessive politicisation of science.

This occurred either by politicians attacking experts and silencing public health authorities or by co-opting and instrumentalizing science for political ends.

While the response to a health emergency like COVID-19 is inevitably political and requires public debate, during the pandemic, politicisation went too far.

This undermined the integrity of evidence-based decision-making, obstructed the effectiveness of emergency risk communication, and ultimately hindered society's ability to reach consensus and solidarity in the face of a common threat.

Philippe: What about media policies during the pandemic?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: The second challenge was linked to media policies. In all four countries, infringements on media freedom increased, and journalists' access to information became restricted.

Despite the problems caused by health misinformation and disinformation, none of the four countries implemented a consistent policy in this area while populists were in power. In Brazil and the USA, populist leaders themselves contributed to spreading misinformation.

Philippe: And the third challenge?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: The third challenge brought by populism, or more specifically by the proliferation of populist beliefs among citizens, is that such beliefs are likely to undermine trust in experts and weaken resilience to health misinformation.

For instance, in Brazil, Bolsonaro voters believed in 67% more misinformation than voters for opposing candidates or abstainers. In the USA, Trump voters believed in 52% more misinformation than those not voting for him.

Strategies for Overcoming Misinformation

Philippe: Considering the spread of misinformation by some populist leaders, what strategies would you recommend for risk communicators to counteract this and ensure the public receives reliable information?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Public authorities involved in emergency risk communication should develop and implement an integrated strategy for combating misinformation both online and offline.

This involves coordinating counter-misinformation efforts at national, regional, and local levels and engaging multiple stakeholders, including media organisations, regulators, digital platforms, influencers, and local communities, with special attention to vulnerable groups.

Providing a consistent supply of clear information to the public, including reliable statistical data, is crucial.

Philippe: How important is it to work with media organisations?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Nurturing cooperative relationships with media organisations is very important. Risk communicators working for public authorities should ensure that journalists' questions are never left unanswered and facilitate journalists' access to experts with suitable expertise to prevent them from turning to unreliable sources.

All risk communicators should also engage in regular monitoring and fact-checking of information from all sources, including social networking and messaging platforms and traditional news sources. They should be mindful that misinformation can originate from political elites, medical professionals, and celebrities.

Risk communicators, along with other key actors like fact-checkers, can play an important role in improving communication standards on social media and helping identify and counter harmful messages.

Role of Social Media

Philippe: Social media often amplifies populist messages. What advice do you have for risk communicators on using these platforms to promote factual information effectively?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Despite their role in amplifying populist messages and fostering misinformation, social media can serve as a key vehicle for effective risk communication.

Social media can and should play a central role in more dialogic forms of health communication during crises.

These forms avoid purely top-down communication styles when developing preventative measures and treatments and instead engage with diverse communities, enlisting community leaders or suitable social media influencers.

Philippe: How can established media brands help in this regard?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Established, trustworthy media brands are key allies in disseminating factual information on social media, as they can reach much wider audiences than risk communication professionals alone.

Being proactive and prepared, and seeking to drive the agenda on social media rather than just responding to it, is also important. Specialist knowledge is crucial here; during the COVID-19 pandemic, many news media organisations struggled to cover developments effectively due to a lack of health expertise among journalists.

Public health communication professionals played an important role in signposting journalists to qualified experts and providing explanations and additional information where necessary.

In Brazil and the USA, several public health officials provided ad-hoc training in public health communication to journalists, recognising that many were assigned to cover public health issues without prior training.

Such collaborative efforts increased the volume of accurate information circulating through media systems, both online and offline.

Building Public Trust

Philippe: With populism on the rise, what do you see as the key factors in building and maintaining public trust in expert institutions and their crisis communication efforts?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Maintaining the autonomy and transparency of specialised agencies involved in risk communication, such as public health authorities, is key.

Protecting the integrity of the scientific process of gathering and analysing information and formulating recommendations is also crucial.

For instance, to tackle distrust of COVID-19 vaccines, especially following Trump's pressures for fast approval, the US Food and Drug Administration increased the transparency of its decision-making by making relevant committee meetings public and providing open webcasts about its Emergency Use Authorization mechanism.

Philippe: Are there any other important factors?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Engaging with a wide range of actors, including local communities, is also important. A good example from the USA is the introduction of special mobile units called "care-a-vans," designed to provide information on protective measures and distribute protective equipment at a local level. These units were specifically designed to connect with local communities and tackle distrust.

Expert institutions should also ensure public access to trustworthy information, provided both directly through channels operated by public authorities or expert institutions and indirectly through collaboration with journalists. In Brazil, state health secretaries adopted several strategies for providing fact-checked information to local media and digital platforms.

The Federal Health Institute Fiocruz developed a partnership with fact-checking agencies to challenge misinformation and provide fact-checked alternatives.

Addressing the Politicisation of Health Crises

Philippe: How can risk communicators navigate the politicisation of health crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, in environments dominated by populist politics?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Our first recommendation is to ensure that public policy during a health crisis is informed by the best available science, with public health authorities at the centre of the policy-making process.

It's crucial to understand that some policy decisions may involve value choices that require wide consultation across society and for which political leaders will have to take ultimate responsibility.

Another key recommendation is to avoid purely top-down communication styles when developing preventative measures and treatments. Instead, develop mechanisms for dialogue with a range of actors, seeking multipartisan solutions that will have a better chance of being widely accepted.

For example, to counter politicisation, local and regional public health authorities in the USA took special care to engage with communities of different political, ideological, and religious affiliations, attending both Republican and Democratic events, as well as a range of churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.

International Cooperation

Philippe: In what ways does populism impact international cooperation in risk communication, and what steps can be taken to mitigate any negative effects?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Populism often has a nationalist appeal, and populist leaders frequently target international organisations like the WHO or the European Union.

We also noticed that some populist leaders sought to play one form of international cooperation against another. For instance, Serbian leadership embraced Chinese and Russian emergency supplies and vaccines and used them to critique EU support.

It's important to highlight the importance of solidarity, emphasising that in a health crisis, communities need to pull together across borders as well as within them. International organisations such as the WHO or the EU are particularly well-placed to support international collaboration during a health emergency.

More could be done outside the context of a major health crisis to ensure that suitable mechanisms are in place to facilitate such cooperation, even when political elites may actively seek to undermine it.

Organisations in the media and communication sector, such as the International Federation of Journalists and the European Platform of Regulatory Authorities, have a role to play as well.

Our research shows that some of these organisations are already taking steps to develop closer collaboration with the WHO to be better prepared for future pandemics. More initiatives of this kind should be encouraged.

Future Preparedness

Philippe: What long-term strategies should risk and crisis communicators implement to get ready for upcoming emergencies in nations with populist governments, according to your research?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Populism isn't going to disappear, and professionals involved in health crisis and emergency risk communication will likely have to operate in an environment where polarisation and scepticism are widespread.

Risk and crisis communicators should anticipate political contestation over public health threats and preventative measures. They should revise existing guidance and training tools for public health emergencies, incorporating advice and scenarios that envisage political contestation and lack of support from political elites.

Social science and humanities expertise need to be incorporated more fully into the health agencies that lead emergency risk communication.

Health communicators should move away from top-down models, where health knowledge is produced in laboratories and later transmitted downward by actors like journalists and public officials.

Instead, they should shift to more participatory, dialogic models of communication.

Evaluating Communication Effectiveness

Philippe: Finally, how can we evaluate the effectiveness of risk communication strategies given the complex dynamics introduced by populism?

Professor Sabina Mihelj: Complex dynamics require a multi-layered approach to evaluating effectiveness. Our research, which examined the impact of populism on several dimensions of emergency risk communication during COVID-19 using mixed methods, offers a good example of such an approach.

It also suggests that social scientists and humanities experts have an important role to play in supporting both the development and evaluation of health risk communication strategies.

Their expertise could be incorporated more fully into future risk communication practices.

About Professor Sabina Mihelj

Professor Sabina Mihelj, who joined Loughborough University in 2004, has a rich academic background with experience in Slovenia, Hungary, and Germany.

Her research covers the interplay between media, politics, and culture, particularly within semi-democratic, authoritarian, and post-authoritarian contexts.

She has significantly contributed to discussions on media and nationalism, Cold War media, and comparative media research. Her most recent book, to be published later this year, examines the role of media in the rise of illiberalism.

Sabina’s current research focuses on the role of populism in crisis communication and on the transnational circulation and reception of disinformation.

Her research was funded by organisations like the Economic and Social Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the British Academy, and she has also served as Programme Director and as the Director of Research for Communication and Media at Loughborough.

Her collaborative efforts extend to non-academic stakeholders, influencing museum exhibitions and TV documentaries, and her research has been recognised in top-scoring REF Impact Case Studies.

Sabina's ongoing projects involve partnerships with the European Broadcasting Union, the European Federation of Journalists, media regulators, and other key media organisations.

References and further reading.

1  PANCOPOP – Pandemic Communication in Times of Populism. (2024, May 22).

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