This project will use a combination of four key methods – elite interviews, media policy analysis, quantitative and qualitative media content analysis, and population surveys – alongside analysis of publicly available secondary data.

Strand 1: Health crisis communication

This strand will map government-led pandemic crisis communication processes in each country, and examine the ways in which they were affected by populism, focusing on the following questions: Which actors were involved, how were decisions made on public health messaging, and what kinds of themes were dominant? What was the relationship between political and scientific actors? Which actors and choices pushed toward polarization and partisanship, or toward solidarity? What was the role of populist leaders in this context? The analysis involve tracing the crisis communication channels and process based on the analysis of public records and other sources, as well as elite interviews.

Strand 2: Media policy

The objective of this part of the project is to investigate the link between populism and media policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following questions will be asked: How did media policies (e.g., freedom of expression and right to information, distribution of advertising) change during the pandemic, and what role did populist leaders play in these changes? What was the impact of these changes on democratic governance and pro-democratic news media functions? The analysis of media policies comprises three layers: regulatory and legal analysis, analysis of secondary data, and elite interviews.

Strand 3: Media coverage

This strand will examine the key traits of domestic media coverage of the pandemic, their implications for the quality of public deliberation, and links with polarization, asking the following questions: Which actors, and what kind of themes and frames were dominant in media coverage? How did this differ from actors and themes present in crisis communication? How polarized was the media coverage of the pandemic? Did populism contribute to polarization? Media coverage will  analysed using a combination of quantitative ‘Big Data’ methods and in-depth, qualitative methods.

Strand 4: Public attitudes

The objective of this strand will be to examine the patterns of public attitudes and information-seeking behaviour in relation to health matters, asking the following questions:

Who do citizens trust when it comes to health matters, where do they turn to for trustworthy information, and to what extent are they exposed to unreliable health information, including misinformation associated with COVID-19? What are citizens’ current attitudes to the pandemic and key preventative measures (e.g., mask wearing, social distancing, etc.), how do they relate to themes and frames prevalent in media coverage (identified in Stand 3), and to their media use (e.g., reliance social media)? These issues will be addressed using population surveys.

Strand 5: Pandemic geopolitics

While populists at home have used the pandemic for advancing their agendas, on the international scene countries challenging the so-called liberal democratic order have also used the momentum to increase their influence. This strand will focus on China and Russia’s efforts in this direction, and on how they impacted on the pandemic communication circuit in the four countries. How were the geopolitical efforts by China and Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic received by the media and by the public in the four countries? What is the relationship between media use, public attitudes to China and Russia (including vaccines), and attitudes to democracy and different policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic? The final strand utilizes the sources and methods used in Strands 3 and 4, primarily focusing on automated content analysis and the population survey.