Chickens and Eggs

Chris Mooney has written several books about science–or more accurately, the rejection of science by conservative Republicans. His most recent book is The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.

While Mooney has an obvious political perspective, his analysis of the role of media–and specifically, Fox News, is interesting.

Mooney reviews a number of peer-reviewed studies looking at the connection between political misinformation and media preferences–public information surveys that ask citizens about their beliefs on factual issues and their media habits. It won’t come as a revelation that people who depend exclusively or primarily on Fox News are far and away the most misinformed. The more interesting question, however, is whether Fox creates a particular mind-set, or whether people with that mind-set seek out Fox and similar sources.

Is Fox the chicken or the egg?

Mooney cites a 1957 seminal book by Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. That book predicted that people who are highly committed to a belief would try to avoid encountering claims that challenge that belief. Rather, they would seek out “information” that confirmed their preconceptions.

This was well before the internet facilitated the construction of such information “bubbles.”

Festinger called his prediction theory “selective exposure.” Today, we more often refer to it as “self-selection.”

A recent meta-analysis of 67 studies by a University of Alabama psychologist found that people overall were nearly twice as likely to “consume ideologically congenial information than to consume ideologically inconvenient information”–and that the most “highly committed” people were far more likely to do so.

According to the research, people most likely to be among this “highly committed” category are right-wing authoritarian personalities.

So while we do have examples that Fox News “makes shit up”–a practice that distinguishes the network from networks like MSNBC that “spin” facts to favor a political perspective but generally refrain from manufacturing them–the chicken and egg question remains.

Are people who get all their information from Fox being indoctrinated, or do they watch Fox because they are looking for confirmation of their pre-existing ideological commitments?

Of course, no matter what the answer to that question, there’s another: if Fox–and Rush, and Drudge, etc.–didn’t exist, would America still be so polarized? Or did our polarization lead to the creation of Fox, Drudge, et al?

Chicken? Egg? I report–you decide! (Sorry–couldn’t resist!)