Sergio Sparviero and Josef Trappel, with additional research by Stefan Gadringer, Jana Büchner, and Roland Holzinge
University of Salzburg
The spread of fake news and hate speech through social media became a key issue in Austria’s divisive presidential elections. Despite the growing influence of online media, Austrians still enjoy the highest printed newspaper consumption rates in Europe.
The polarised state of Austrian politics was exposed in 2016 by an election that almost saw the first freely elected far-right head of state in Europe. Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPÖ) eventually narrowly lost the presidency to former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen, after the results of an extremely close first round were annulled in June.
During the campaign, Van der Bellen had to deny rumours – which started first on Facebook – that he was suffering from lung cancer and dementia. The election was also marked by several false profiles including that of a ‘ficititious’ German green politician, Tobias Weihrauch, whose postings calling for ‘as many Syrians and Africans as possible in our country’ were shared by outraged right-wing Austrian groups on Facebook.1 Austrian legislators have accused Facebook of not doing enough to prevent false profiles, fake news, and the spread of hate speech, with only around 20% of reported examples removed. Regulatory action is planned for 2017.
Fuelling many of these stories was Unzensuriert.at (Uncensored). This right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-immigration website was founded by a former Freedom Party politician and its articles are shared on Facebook by party members. It has recently expanded to Germany.2 Comment forums on the website included cases of hate speech which were subject to a court injunction, along with false claims that Van Bellen was a spy.
Our survey shows heightened interest in politics and news in general, with two-thirds of respondents (67%) saying they are extremely or very interested in news and 68% that they access the news at least twice a day (up from 56% in 2015). Austrians have also seen a significant increase in access via mobile, with smartphones now used for news by 56% of the respondents and considered as the main device by 42%. A quarter (25%) use mobile news apps, up from 13% in 2015, and mobile notifications are also up significantly, driven by the elections and interest in the progress of the national football team in the European championships.
There have been few changes in the brands used for news over the last year, with public service broadcaster ORF still dominating online and traditional access to news. The survey also revealed that orf.at is the preferred brand for accuracy, while derstandard.at is the favourite brand for explaining complex issues and for providing strong opinions, while the satirical dietagespresse.com, for the first time included in the survey, is the preferred brand for amusing content.
Although the media environment is still characterised by one of the highest printed newspaper consumption rates in Europe, particularly through subscriptions, structural changes are contributing to the slow but steady transition to digital. The decline of print distribution was particularly severe for Der Standard and Kurier, as they experienced a decrease of over 5% compared to the previous year. Significant for the news landscape was the closure of the business paper Wirtschaftsblatt in September 2016 by the Styria Media Group. Plans for a new online venture organised by the journalists were discussed but ultimately failed to materialise. Also important was the closure in April 2017 of nzz.at, the digital news outlet primarily financed by subscriptions, launched in January 2015 by the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). Bertelsmann’s Gruner+Jahr sold its majority stake in the largest news magazine News, to the magazine’s director Horst Pirker, after substantial losses in 2014 and 2015. The Heute publishing company teamed up with Media Group Tamedia, the publisher of 20 Minuten and Tages-Anzeiger in Switzerland. Tamedia acquired a minority share (25.5%) of the printed newspaper Heute and the majority (51%) of Heute’s digital ventures.
Efforts to use social media and messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for extending reach and brand awareness have intensified – with services created or significantly expanded by outlets including OE24, ORF, GMX, and Krone. Despite the fact that the extent of the online remit of the public service broadcaster ORF is still under discussion by the authority for broadcasting, a new 100-second news broadcast (ZIB100) designed for distribution over social media and messaging services was launched in April.
Readership of printed newspapers remains higher than in most other countries in our survey and is declining more slowly in the face of online competition. Smartphone usage for news has grown rapidly over the last few years.
There is a significant trust gap between over 35s (48%) and under 35s, the so- called millennials (36%). There is also a close relationship between political parties and the most used news brand ORF, as representatives of political parties are part of its board of Trustees. This may account for the relatively low number (23%) who agree that the media is free from political influence.