Abstract: The hopes regarding the positive impact of the Internet and digital participation in civic society have faded in recent years. The digital realm is now increasingly discussed regarding its role in putting democracy in jeopardy and polarizing public debate by propagating extremist views and falsehoods. Likewise, the perception of so-called alternative media as beneficial carriers of counter-public spheres and as important complements to mainstream positions in social debate has flipped. Alternative media are now often associated with the “Wicked web” of disinformation, political populism, or even radicalization. Following Quandt’s (2018) notion of ‘dark participation’ and Phillips and Milner’s (2017) description of the Internet as ambivalent, this article asks, whether the same holds true for the users of alternative media: a segment of the audience traditionally discussed in terms of community, engagement, participation, and strong ideological identification with progressive political causes. Do users of ‘dark’ alternative media bond with their media in similar ways to constitute communities of darkness? Based on interviews with 35 users of alternative media from a left-leaning, right-wing, Russian-tied and/or conspiracy spectrum users, uses of alternative media are pictured as grey rather than black or white. The findings illuminate the ambivalences within alternative media users as audiences and communities. Ambivalences are found regarding the use of alternative sources as audience or community members, regarding a shared attitude of criticality and anti-systemness, which connects trans-medially and trans-ideologically, as well as the experienced comfort of community, which can become a main motivation for use.
Keywords: alternative media; anti-system; audience; community; dark participation; populism