Skepticism

Study: You Can Deprogram Fox News Viewers by Showing Them CNN

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Last month I told you about how watching American Ninja Warrior makes people more likely to believe in the “American Dream” that anyone can improve their lives through hard work. Now I’m going to tell you about how watching Fox News is literally destroying democracy. We have fun here, don’t we? Yeah.

I’m sure the general idea of Fox News melting Americans’ brains isn’t, well, “news” for most of you, but a very interesting study has just been published showing how bad the problem is and exploring WHY this problem is happening and what the consequences may be. And it’s not good!

The study is called “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers” and I have good news and bad news about the research itself: first of all, it’s a “working paper” or “preprint,” meaning that it has not yet been peer reviewed. Does that mean it’s untrue? No! But it means that peer review may eventually find problems with it, maybe problems so big that it invalidates the results, so keep that in mind. Normally I wouldn’t make a video about a preprint but I’ve seen it pop up in mainstream news articles without emphasis on the fact that it’s not peer-reviewed, so I figure it’s worth pointing out.

But on the other hand, the preprint is available in full online, so if you are a peer working in this field, then YOU can review it right now. Also, this is one of my favorite kind of studies: pre-registered, which means that before the experiment started, the scientists detailed exactly what their hypothesis was, how they would go about testing it, and what statistical analyses they’d use to see if they confirmed their hypothesis.

So, on to what the study actually was: we already know Fox News is biased towards conservatives, but is that a big problem if the only people who watch it are already hardcord conservatives? If you exposed those people to unfiltered or liberal-biased news, wouldn’t they just ignore it?

To find out, back in September of 2020, researchers identified about 750 die-hard Fox News viewers – people who specifically watched little to no CNN but anywhere from 8 to 240 hours of Fox News each month. And yeah that’s 60 hours a week for the most hardcore subjects. That’s…I don’t even want to know what their lives are like to watch 60 hours of any TV channel a week let alone Fox News.

They took about 450 of those viewers and let them keep doing what they were doing. For the other 300, though, the researchers convinced them to watch up to 7 hours of CNN each week for four weeks. How did they convince them? Great question: they offered to pay them FIFTEEN DOLLARS AN HOUR for every hour of CNN they watched. That’s…that’s the exact minimum wage that Fox News hates. That is somehow beautiful, that there’s all these Fox News conservatives that are like “no way do teenagers deserve to make $15 an hour sweating over the fryer making my chicken nuggets but yeah I absolutely deserve that amount for sitting on my ass watching Anderson Cooper, sure.”

Anyway, they gave the subjects quizzes to make sure they actually watched CNN, because you know some of those subjects were planning to be welfare queens who couldn’t be trusted to watch the right kind of tv to get that money. But in fact, compliance turned out to be very high based on those quizzes, which is great.

Throughout the month, the researchers took note of what news stories were prioritized on each network. They found that CNN most frequently discussed COVID-19, particularly focusing on Trump’s failure to protect the lives of Americans, as well as the severity of the virus. They found that during that same period Fox most frequently discussed Black Lives Matter, focusing on Biden and the Democrats’ support for the protests as well as the “extreme” violence of the protests. The third most common topic was also COVID-19, but in contrast to CNN, Fox’s hosts were specifically downplaying the severity.

So we have two groups of long-term die-hard Fox junkies, one of whom spends just one month watching a maximum of seven hours of CNN per week. Even in that relatively short time period, the results were staggering: the CNN group leap ahead of the Fox group in their knowledge of things like what “long COVID” is, and how other countries were doing a better job than the US at controlling the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the Fox group was more likely to think that Joe Biden supported defunding the police. Which, in case you’re wondering, is not quite true considering that at the time Joe Biden was on record saying “No, I don’t support defunding the police” and in fact he was proposing increasing the budget for policing by $300 million. If that’s “defunding” please defund me, too! I’d buy one of those tiny horses to live in my backyard. But it’s clear that it’s not just that Fox was failing to educate their viewers, but they are actively spreading misinformation, which reminds me of that poll that found that people who watch no news at all are more knowledgeable about world events than people who watch Fox.

The researchers also found that the CNN group was much more likely to start disapproving of Trump, AND more likely to recognize the fact that Fox News is a biased source, agreeing that if President Trump really screwed up on something, Fox probably wouldn’t report it.

Unfortunately, after the paid CNN viewing ceased, the subjects in that group slowly drifted back to watching only Fox News, and accordingly over the months their views came back into alignment with the control group. Imagine, Plato’s cavemen taking a look around and then going “Eh, actually I liked the shadow puppets, let’s go back in.”

Now, some of you may be yelling “but this isn’t fair!! CNN is biased, too!” And you are correct! Good job, here’s a sticker.

The researchers pointed out that they would love to compare things going “the other way,” but they only had enough money for one experiment. Because the president at the time was conservative, they figured they’d have an easier time getting data from conservatives. They chose CNN not because they’re perfectly objective, but because their bias is different enough from Fox to get some results. While Fox viewers DID come to believe outright lies compared to the CNN viewers, there was still some topics where I can agree that it’s a more subjective issue: the researchers point out that because of the sheer amount of time each network spent on each topic, viewers became biased as to which topics they found most important. It’s a bit subjective whether you think COVID is a more IMPORTANT topic than the Black Lives Matter protests, but when you take Fox News viewers and show them CNN, they start to change their minds based on nothing more than how often they see these topics covered on the news.

That’s “agenda setting” and it’s one of the three ways the researchers found that viewers were manipulated (by both Fox and CNN). They also found that “framing” was important: the words the hosts use, the viewpoint they come from about a particular topic. The classic example of this is whether someone is labeled as a “freedom fighter” or a “terrorist.” The words used will impact how viewers interpret the topic.

The third construct is “Partisan Coverage Filtering,” which is picking and choosing which data to give to viewers. As a hypothetical, the researchers describe how the networks might report upon a war started by a Republican president: “CNN gives extensive information about the cost of the conflict, the number of US soldiers who died, and civilian casualties. Fox News gives equally extensive information about the severity of the threat that the President’s military campaign neutralized and anecdotes of civilians who have greeted US soldiers as liberators. This leaves viewers of each network with different factual understandings of the conflict, and subsequently different levels of support for the conflict and the President.”

Agenda setting, framing, and partisan coverage filtering is how your racist uncle gets made and your Thanksgiving completely ruined. How do we fix it? Well, that, unfortunately, is for future scientists and politicians to puzzle over. Some people may immediately begin to think of the Fairness Doctrine, which was a rule the FCC put into place in 1949 that stated broadcasters had to devote at least SOME time to discussing controversial issues in the public interest and showing both sides (though there was no need for them to spend an equal amount of time on each side). Because it was only even necessary to wield the doctrine against conservative media, which in the 60s and 70s was hosting blatant white supremacists (as opposed to the slightly less blatant white supremacists today), conservatives opposed the doctrine and the Reagan administration did away with it.

Would a reestablished Fairness Doctrine impact the stranglehold Fox News has on conservative viewers? Probably not in its last-used state, since it wouldn’t completely eliminate the three constructs identified by the researchers of this study: hosting an alternative viewpoint might help with partisan filtering and framing but honestly Fox News already does occasionally have on “critics.” Those critics are, unfortunately, usually painfully incompetent at articulating their opposing viewpoint, as when the moderator of the antiwork subreddit went on Jesse Waters Primetime, or the hosts just shout over them, which happens all the time but here’s one example of two Fox News hosts shouting over each other when one attempts to present an alternative view.

So yeah, like most of the stuff I talk about here, it’s probably a bigger problem than one that could be solved with personal choice or even pre-existing legislation. It’s a deep, societal problem built upon years of a feedback loop between increasing political polarization and the monetization of the 24-hour news cycle. 

Ah well, there’s always the possibility of an asteroid hitting the planet! So, you know. Stay positive.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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