Abstract: The erosion of political and societal trust, polarization, and the omnipresence of disinformation may undermine the perceived trustworthiness of established sources of information. Yet, many forced exposure media effect studies in the field of political communication studying polarizing issues such as disinformation and populism assume a baseline level of trust among participants exposed to seemingly neutral information. This neglects long-standing issues of distrust in the press and trends toward increasing distrust among growing segments of the population. Resistance toward established information presented as news may result in unanticipated findings, as a substantial part of the population may not accept these sources as trustworthy or neutral. To enlighten confusion, this article relies on two different experiments (N = 728 and N = 738) to explore how citizens with low levels of trust and high dissatisfaction with the established order respond to information from established information sources. Our main findings indicate that participants with higher levels of populist attitudes, media distrust, and fake news perceptions are more likely to find established information untrustworthy. They are also less likely to agree with the statements of such content. These findings indicate that media effect studies assuming univocal acceptance of seemingly neutral information may fall short in incorporating problematic trends toward factual relativism in their design.
Keywords: disinformation; distrust; factual relativism; media effects; media trust; post-truth politics