Ahead of major holiday gatherings, there's often discussion on the internet of that one relative. Perhaps you know the type. They're the one who consumes conservative media, namely Fox News, so incessantly and religiously that aspects of their entire world view are completely at odds with reality.
They think New York City is a war zone. They think LGBTQ people are on a crusade to "groom" children into being LGBTQ themselves. They think prominent Democrats conspired with foreign adversaries and election companies to "steal" the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump. Maybe they even think there's a covert cabal of satanic pedophile cannibals who eat babies and control world governments, and that Trump was sent by God to expose them.
But what if that relative suddenly changed the channel?
That's what David E. Broockman and Joshua Kalla asked devout Fox News viewers to do in a recently released study titled The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers.
In September of 2020, the study's architects paid devout Fox News viewers to watch CNN—a favorite villain of the far-right—for an entire month, testing them with real time quizzes on the network's coverage and following up with them after viewing.
According to the report:
"Despite regular Fox viewers being largely strong partisans, we found manifold effects of changing the slant of their media diets on their factual beliefs, attitudes, perceptions of issues’ importance, and overall political views. We show that these effects stem in part from a bias we call partisan coverage filtering, wherein partisan outlets selectively report information, leading viewers to learn a biased set of facts.
Consistent with this, treated participants concluded that Fox concealed negative information about President Trump. Partisan media does not only present its side an electoral advantage—it may present a challenge for democratic accountability."
The former Fox viewers were found to evaluate an issue's importance based on how much it was covered, so while Fox often focused on antifa hysteria and similar issues, CNN largely focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration's often bumbling efforts to combat it. The subjects also became better at spotting potential fake news and were less susceptible to lies then-President Trump was promoting about mail-in ballots at the time. They were also more likely to be informed of serious health risks posed by COVID-19.
The phenomenon, however, was ephemeral. After the paid CNN-watching period ended, the viewers were back to watching Fox and the changes in their opinions evaporated.
Broockman and Kalla make the argument that partisan media has enough of a grip on social attitudes that it may undermine democratic accountability. The report notes that both CNN and Fox News engage in " tremendous filtering of which information they present to viewers[.]"
"How can a voter hold a politician accountable for an act of malfeasance if they do not know it occurred? Or, alternatively, how can voters reward an out partisan politician for good performance if their chosen media network does not inform them of it?"
The study generated widespread discussion on social media.
They praised the study as interesting and necessary.
It remains to be seen what developments, if any, will materialize from its findings.