Overview:

Researchers paid right-wing Fox News viewers to watch CNN for month. Find out what they discovered about their views and behavior.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Fox News isn’t just a news network or part of a larger media and entertainment umbrella. It is a lifestyle, a political worldview, a cult. This bubble or better, cage, is where Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are the sect leaders, manipulating and cajoling, provoking and controlling.

And like with any cult, breaking out is difficult, and doing it on your own can be a challenge. But recently, for a select few members of the Fox News cult, help came to them in the form of research.

In September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and with protests in Kenosha and Kyle Rittenhouse running around with a gun, political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla paid a group of 304 regular Fox News viewers $15 per hour to watch CNN (for up to 7 hours a week) for a month. They compared these to a control group of regular Fox News viewers to see what would happen.

And well, things happened.

Indeed, it turns out that living off a solid diet of Fox News really does affect your views, with the research showing that “partisan media has manifold effects on its viewers’ beliefs and attitudes through multiple processes of influence.”

“Viewed from this vantage point, partisan media is not simply a challenge for the opposing party—it may present a challenge for democracy”

Remember, these are viewers who are far more likely to believe the false claim that the U.S. presidential election was stolen, and are more likely to believe misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19.

As Bloomberg reported:

Switchers were five percentage points more likely to believe that people suffer from long Covid, for example, and six points more likely to believe that many foreign countries did a better job than the U.S. of controlling the virus. They were seven points more likely to support voting by mail. And they were 10 points less likely to believe that supporters of then-candidate Joe Biden were happy when police officers get shot, 11 points less likely to say it’s more important for the president to focus on containing violent protesters than on the coronavirus, and 13 points less likely to agree that if Biden were elected, “we’ll see many more police get shot by Black Lives Matter activists.”

These are meaningful differences, even if the group that switched to CNN remained very right-wing in their view of the American political landscape. While far fewer of them believed that Biden supporters were happy about police shootings, for example, the overall share who did believe was still 46%. And only 24% of the CNN switchers said they supported voting by mail.

Still, these are reasonably large changes from a one-month experiment. And they occurred despite the long-term effort of then-President Donald Trump to discredit CNN and other mainstream media outlets.

“These are meaningful differences, even if the group that switched to CNN remained very right-wing in their view of the American political landscape.”

The broad idea is that partisan media influences consumers in agenda-setting and framing, meaning that high levels of coverage change the problems the viewers regard as important. Think the war on Christmas, the threat of trans people, cancel culture, and all the other culture wars narrative topics that are routinely, even ubiquitously, covered on Fox. Such output also primes viewers’ attitudes toward politicians, and frames events in a skewed manner.

What’s more, the research supports the idea that such channels carry out partisan coverage filtering: “selectively reporting information about selectively chosen topics, causing its viewers to learn more information favorable to the network’s partisan side and potentially changing viewers’ attitudes and political evaluations as a result.”

The was also the realization that some things really only were covered on Fox, and that a substitution away from Fox had a large effect on these topics. Misinformation is certainly an area the researchers wanted to look into going forward:

Our findings suggest that partisan media’s role in spreading misinformation (Nyhan 2020) without making explicitly false claims should be a focus of future research. For example, even though Fox News never explicitly stated that Biden supported cutting police funding, it strongly implied this, and respondents who were assigned to continue watching Fox were more likely tobelieve this.

In an email interview with The Guardian, Kalla discussed their findings:

“I think the most surprising finding is that shifting people’s media diets from Fox News to CNN for a month had any effect,” Kalla said. “People who watch cable news tend to be very politically engaged and have strong opinions about politics, limiting the impact of the media. Similarly, they also tend to be strong partisans who might not trust any source not associated with their party.”

The people in the experiment, Kalla said, were “overwhelmingly pro-Trump Republican.” Given Trump had spent much of his presidency bashing CNN—a regular chant at his rallies was “CNN sucks!”—the results are particularly surprising.

“A lot of people might expect this audience to completely resist what CNN had to say, but we see people learning what CNN was reporting and changing their attitudes, too. It is therefore surprising that watching CNN had any impact at all in this experiment,” Kalla said.

Further data collected shows, however, that even though some viewers watched more CNN after the end of the incentivization period, long-term changes in viewer behavior were not really evidenced. Not just the viewing habits, but also the attitudes and beliefs broadly dissipated, too, as the paper concludes:

Our findings suggest a number of broader implications. First, our findings that participants’ attitudes shifted at first away from and then back towards their partisan side along with changesin their viewership behavior accord with Ladd and Lenz’s (2009) conclusion that “stable elite communication flows” in the media, “rather than any inherent durability of public preferences,”may explain why public opinion is typically so resistant to change (p. 405). In other words,media may be important in part because it continually ‘replenishes’ people’s partisan loyalties andpolitical beliefs, giving it tremendous ongoing power even if its immediate effects are short-term.

This leaves you thinking that these people won’t change unless Fox News changes.

And Fox News won’t change.

The most worrying point made in the research was the next and final paragraph:

Second, our results indicate challenges that partisan media may pose for democratic accountability. Media outlets play a central role in helping voters hold elected officials accountable (e.g. Garz and Martin 2021; Hopkins and Pettingill 2018; Snyder and Str ̈omberg 2010). By the same token, hiding information from voters can undermine their ability to hold their elected officials accountable (Besley and Prat 2006). Our evidence indicates that partisan media do exactly this, with manifold consequences for their beliefs and attitudes. Viewed from this vantage point, partisan media is not simply a challenge for the opposing party—it may present a challenge for democracy.

There is a lot to be concerned with in light of such findings. What can we do with this knowledge? Given that the news media landscape is very much part of the free market capitalist enterprise, not a lot. Perhaps, as in Finland, education authorities should now be considering tackling misinformation formally right down in the younger levels of schooling. But with school boards and policy-makers in the states wrapped up in the very ideology one might be seeking to tackle, this is sadly unlikely to happen.

As we build up a greater understanding of how the media influences us as consumers, we will hopefully be in a better place to be able to mitigate its more insidious effects.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...