I know I carp constantly about the degree to which propaganda and conspiracy theories have displaced credible information, with the result that today’s Americans occupy different realities. It’s easy to blame social media for the reach of disinformation and lies–and social media does bear a significant amount of the blame–but research also illuminates the way propaganda has changed in the era of cable news and the Internet.
That research has identified two modern mechanisms for eroding social trust and constructing alternate realities. One –to quote Steve Bannon’s vulgar description–is to “flood the airways with shit.” In other words, to produce mountains of conflicting “news” along with lots of “shiny objects.” The faux “news” confuses; the shiny objects distract. Citizens don’t know what to believe, what parts of the fire hose of information, disinformation, and outright invention they can trust. They either accept a particular storyline (chosen via confirmation bias) or opt out.
But it isn’t simply the fire hose approach that has eroded our common realities. These days, when people get most of their news from partisan sources, all too often they simply don’t get news that is inconsistent with partisan biases.
A recent, widespread report illustrates that technique. As the lede put it, “The problem with Fox ‘News,’ the cable TV channel, isn’t just what it is — it’s also what it isn’t.” It was a fascinating new study in which arch-conservative Fox TV viewers were paid to watch CNN for a month.
The study, titled “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers,” was performed by a pair of political scientists: David Broockman, who teaches at UC-Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, who teaches at Yale.
According to Broockman and Kalla, when these Fox viewers watched CNN, they heard about all sorts of things Fox wasn’t telling them. They processed that information. They took it in. They became more knowledgeable about what was really going on in the United States.
The individuals who took part in the experiment didn’t change their political leanings or partisan preferences, but the experience did alter their perceptions of certain key issues and political candidates.
The study authors differentiated between “traditionally emphasized forms of media influence,” like agenda setting and framing, and what they call “partisan coverage filtering”: the choice to selectively report information about selective topics, based on what’s favorable to the network’s partisan side, and ignore everything else.
The article emphasized what the author called the “real problem” with Fox : its viewers aren’t just manipulated and misinformed — they are left ignorant of much of the news covered by more reputable outlets. Fox gives them a lot of “news-like” information, but they don’t learn about things like Jared Kushner getting two billion dollars from Saudi Arabia.
That conclusion reminded me of another research project a couple of years ago. People were asked to identify their primary news sources and then quizzed on things currently in the news. Those who named Fox as their preferred news source knew less than people who didn’t watch any news from any source.
Lest you think that “filtering” of this sort is a tactic exclusive to the Right, when one of the authors of the research study was interviewed on CNN, he noted that CNN, too, filtered its reporting.
CNN’s Brian Stetler interviewed Joshua Kalla, one of the co-authors of the study, and they had the following exchange:
“You call this partisan coverage filtering,” Stelter told Kalla. “And basically, you’re proving what we’ve sensed for a while, which is that Fox viewers are in the dark about bad news for the GOP.”
Kalla confirmed the Fox News coverage model but put a stop to the victory lap: “On the flip side, CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well… For example, during this time, the Abraham Accords were signed, and these were the agreements where Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed a major peace agreement. And we see that Fox News covered this really major accomplishment about 15 times more than CNN did. So we established both networks are really engaging in this partisan coverage filtering. It’s not about one side, it’s about the media writ large.”
To be fair, CNN is apparently less culpable in this regard than Fox..
America’s ugly politics is obviously attributable to a lot more than the country’s media environment, even if you throw in the very divisive algorithms used by social media. (After all, the KKK didn’t use the Internet.) But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both mass media and social media have contributed disproportionately to our loss of a common reality.
As always, the questions are: what policies might make things better? And can we pass those policies once they are identified?