“We are watching Fox”

The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) did a fascinating study on public perceptions of the Iraq War in 2003, with the results published in the Political Science Quarterly. Here is a link to the full text of the article.

The study analyzed the weird disparity between people’s pre-war perceptions of the Iraq situation, such as their beliefs that the evidence of Hussein’s link to Al Qaeda or the evidence of WMDs was insufficient to launch a unilateral attack, and their ultimate support of the president’s decision to go to war. In a series of seven polls from January to September of 2003, they examined the misperceptions that were prevalent among supporters of the war that led them to believe that the war was a good idea despite a lack of supporting evidence, and the possible causes of these misperceptions.

What the actual misperceptions were is not so interesting, especially since it’s been five years since the poll and most of the misperceptions are old hat. The causes of the misperceptions, though, are much more interesting to speculate about. The researchers examined eight factors that they surmised may have influenced people’s misperceptions, and found that a few of them had a strong correlation with the number of misperceptions held by each individual. Incidentally, the two most powerful factors were intention to vote for George W. Bush in the next election (2004), and which station served as the primary source of network news. “Having Fox, CBS, or NPR/PBS as one’s primary news source,” they found, “emerges as the most significant predictor of […] misperceptions in general”:

Fox is the most consistently significant predictor of misperceptions. Those who primarily watched Fox were 2.0 times more likely to believe that close links to al Qaeda have been found, 1.6 times more likely to believe that WMD had been found, 1.7 times more likely to believe that world public opinion was favorable to the war, and 2.1 times more likely to have at least one misperception. […]

Those who primarily watched CBS were 1.8 times more likely to believe that close links to al Qaeda have been found, 1.9 times more likely to believe that world public opinion was favorable to the war, and 2.3 times more likely to have at least one misperception. However, they were not significantly different on beliefs about the uncovering of WMD.

On the other hand, those who primarily watched PBS or listened to NPR were 3.5 times less likely to believe that close links to al Qaeda have been found, 5.6 times less likely to believe that world public opinion was favorable to the war, and 3.8 times less likely to have at least one misperception. However, they were not significantly different on the issue of WMD.

But wait, it gets better: they also found that “level of attention to news was not a significant factor overall, with the exception of those who primarily got their news from Fox.” Fox viewers, in other words, were the only ones who were shown to become increasingly misinformed the more they watched the news. Robert Talisse and Scott F. Aikin paraphrase it thusly: “increased attention to the media forms that tend to feature more by way of real time argumentation – namely, television and radio, as opposed to print sources – is positively correlated with political ignorance.”

Talisse and Aikin used the PIPA study to support their concept of what they call a selective straw man fallacy (“Two Forms of the Straw Man.” Argumentation 20.3; full text). This is when a person, A, selects a weak argument against his own argument, refutes that weak argument, and then generalizes from that refutation to all counterarguments that might oppose his own argument. So, for instance, if B, C, and D all have counterarguments to A’s argument, and B’s is the weakest counterargument, A will refute B’s counterargument and then claim that he has refuted all opposition to his own argument. This kind of argumentation is seen all the time in popular political discourse:

The audience is expected to rely upon the author to present the opponent’s view, the author presents what is in fact a more-or-less accurate depiction of what some of the weakest opponents have said, the author easily refutes the opponents, and then explicitly takes himself or herself to have shown that all extant articulations of the opposing view are as easily dismantled.

Talisse and Aikin conclude that

The result is a popular public discourse of heightened passion and outrage that grows increasingly ignorant of what is actually in dispute. Under such conditions, a premium is placed on holding one’s ground without regard to the reasons and arguments of those who disagree; that is, the result is a total undermining of argumentation.

The “total undermining of argumentation,” I would suggest, is what makes Republican talk show hosts so insufferable. But frustration with Republicans aside, the PIPA study is alarming in its demonstration of the relative ease with which the President is able to mobilize support for his policies based on outright falsehoods, and the level of complicity of certain types of media in perpetuating, or at least failing to repudiate these false beliefs. Something to think about next time you’re listening to Sean Hannity.

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