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Recent years have seen worrying political developments across both old and new democracies, ranging from the rise of populist leaders and dwindling support for democratic rule to the growing polarization of public opinion. Many of these transformations have been linked to changes in information environments, and specifically to the growth of social media and digital platforms. With the proliferation of various “alternative”, hyperpartisan online news sources, unverified information and fringe opinions spread virally and get exploited by populist actors and movements.

While these tendencies currently pose challenges to democracies across the world, their impact is particularly detrimental in countries that have a shorter history of democratic development and where democratic institutions are more fragile. This is the case in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region that has recently experienced an unprecedented decline in the quality of democracy, a resurgence of illiberal nationalism, and a shift towards authoritarian forms of government. These troublesome developments are arguably threatening to reverse the process of post-1989 transition following the fall of communism. This makes research into the relationships between media use, political attitudes and behaviour, and popular support for democracy in CEE particularly topical – especially given the fact that systematic research into these issues has so far been limited largely to the U.S. and Western Europe.    

The ambition of this project is therefore to fill this gap, and to carry out the first-ever systematic, comparative study of news consumption and political polarization in Central and Eastern Europe, at a key point in time when the region is undergoing dramatic changes. This will be achieved by means of conducting a comparative study of news consumption and political attitudes, using a novel multi-method analytical framework that combines survey data, digital tracking of media consumption, as well as media diaries and qualitative interviews with audiences in four CEE countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Serbia. This methodological framework is designed to offer a holistic insight into the political implications of the changing news environment, and into its consequences for the processes of democratic backsliding and the rise of illiberal populism and nationalism in CEE.

Through designated impact activities with our project partners we will also seek to influence both professional and public debate concerning the political impact of the changing news environment in CEE, and contribute to the development of regulatory frameworks, professional standards and civil society activities designed to counter the growth of media partisanship and the spreading of disinformation and “fake news” via online media channels.