You Suspected Right-Wing Media Was Dangerous -- Now We Can Prove It

Studies suggest that Fox News & GOP messages went corona-viral, making the crisis far worse

One of the big problems in our democracy is how our acceptance of facts is linked to party affiliation. Many Democratic voters don’t want to believe verifiable facts showing that Democratic politicians are often bankrolled by and work to protect corporate donors. Many Republican voters don’t want to believe that Donald Trump is a pathological liar, even though he obviously is

To many Americans bathing in cable news propaganda and digital misinformation, truth is only truth if their party says so.

Now, three studies show the deadly real-world consequences of this dynamic during the coronavirus emergency — and those consequences go way beyond just a partisan gap in public opinion about the disease.

Recall that for weeks, Donald Trump and Fox News downplayed the pandemic. At one point, a Fox News host called the virus a “scam,” and at another point, the network broadcast Republican Rep. Devin Nunes telling people to ignore social distancing directives. Of late, we see Fox News promoting protests against social distancing, and Republican governors ignoring scientific guidelines and moving to lift stay-at-home directives. 

The Fox News/GOP message to Republican voters is clear: scientific expertise and facts should be ignored — and that message has now gone viral (pun intended). 

‘Republicans engage in less social distancing’

A new study from University of Chicago and Rice researchers shows that “as Trump voter share rises, individuals search less for information on the virus, and engage in less social distancing behavior, as measured by smartphone location patterns.” 

The analysis additionally found that “these patterns persist in the face of state-level mandates to close schools and businesses or to ‘stay home,’ and reverse only when conservative politicians are exposed and the White House releases federal social distancing guidelines.”

A separate study from NYU, Stanford and Harvard researchers found that “areas with more Republicans engage in less social distancing, controlling for other factors including state policies, population density, and local COVID cases and deaths.” The trend is pronounced: “Moving from the 10th to the 90th percentile of Republican county vote share is associated with an 18.6 percent increase” in visits to public locations and gathering places.

A revealing divide inside the Fox News bubble

If you somehow think this has nothing to do with the specific messages coursing through media, think again.

A University of Chicago study shows that within the Fox News bubble, “greater viewership of Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight is strongly associated with a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the early stages of the pandemic.” 

The study notes that “Carlson warned viewers about the threat posed by the coronavirus from early February, while Hannity originally dismissed the risks associated with the virus before gradually adjusting his position starting late February” -- and “after Hannity’s shift in tone, the diverging trajectories on COVID-19 cases begin to revert.”

The takeaway: our ability to stop the virus is being undermined by our collective inability to accept empirical evidence and data — and by partisan media outlets that seek to discredit politically inconvenient facts. As one of the studies declared: “Society ends up with more disease transmission at higher economic cost than if people had the same beliefs.” 

The GOP’s message is not only immoral, it will likely hurt the economy

For their part, GOP politicians justify their hostility to science by arguing that we must make sure the economy is protected and that the social distancing “cure isn’t worse than the disease.” 

However, if history is a guide, that message — and the partisan divide in how we deal with facts — may end up also doing more economic damage: a Federal Reserve study found that during the 1918 flu pandemic, locales that put in place more stringent social distancing measures ended up eventually faring better than locales that rejected those measures.

Rock the boat,

Sirota