The Science of Fox News: Why Its Viewers are the Most Misinformed
Continued from previous page
Politifact Swings and Misses
In attempting to fact-check Jon Stewart on the subject of Fox News and misinformation, PolitiFact simply appeared out of its depth. The author of the article in question, Louis Jacobson, only cited two of the studies above--“Iraq War” and “2010 Election”—though six out of seven were available at the time he was writing. And then he suggested that the “2010 Election” study should “carry less weight” due to various methodological objections.
Meanwhile, Jacobson dug up three separate studies that we can dismiss as irrelevant. That’s because these studies did not concern misinformation, but rather, how informed news viewers are about basic political facts like the following: “who the vice president is, who the president of Russia is, whether the Chief Justice is conservative, which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives and whether the U.S. has a trade deficit.”
A long list of public opinion studies have shown that too few Americans know the answers to such basic questions. That’s lamentable, but also off point at the moment. These are not politically contested issues, nor are they skewed by an active misinformation campaign. As a result, on such issues many Americans may be ill-informed but liberals and conservatives are nevertheless able to agree.
Jon Stewart was clearly talking about political misinformation. He used the word “misinformed.” And for good reason: Misinformation is by far the bigger torpedo to our national conversation, and to any hope of a functional politics. “It’s one thing to be not informed,” explains David Barker, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied conservative talk-radio listeners and Fox viewers. “It’s another thing to be misinformed, where you’re confident in your incorrectness. That’s the thing that’s really more problematic, democratically speaking—because if you’re confidently wrong, you’re influencing people.”
Thus PolitiFact’s approach was itself deeply uninformed, and underscores just how poorly our mainstream political discourse deals with the problem of systematic right wing misinformation.
Fox and the Republican Brain
The evidence is clear, then—the Politifact-Stewart flap notwithstanding, Fox viewers are the most misinformed. But then comes the truly interesting and important question: Why is that the case?
To answer it, we’ll first need to travel back to the 1950s, and the pioneering work of the Stanford psychologist and cult infiltrator, Leon Festinger.
In his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger built on his famous study of a doomsday cult called the Seekers, and other research, to lay out many ramifications of his core idea about why human beings contort the evidence to fit their beliefs, rather than conforming those beliefs to the evidence. That included a prediction about how those who are highly committed to a belief or view should go about seeking information that touches on that powerful conviction.
Festinger suggested that once we’ve settled on a core belief, this ought to shape how we gather information. More specifically, we are likely to try to avoid encountering claims and information that challenge that belief, because these will create cognitive dissonance. Instead, we should go looking for information that affirms the belief. The technical (and less than ideal) term for this phenomenon is “selective exposure”: what it means is that we selectively choose to be exposed to information that is congenial to our beliefs, and to avoid “inconvenient truths” that are uncongenial to them.
If Festinger’s ideas about “selective exposure” are correct, then the problem with Fox News may not solely be that it is actively causing its viewers to be misinformed. It’s very possible that Fox could be imparting misinformation even as politically conservative viewers are also seeking the station out—highly open to it and already convinced about many falsehoods that dovetail with their beliefs. Thus, they would come into the encounter with Fox not only misinformed and predisposed to become more so, but inclined to be very confident about their incorrect beliefs and to impart them to others. In this account, political misinformation on the right would be driven by a kind of feedback loop, with both Fox and its viewers making the problem worse.