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July 26, 2019, 8:04 a.m.
Audience & Social

Junky TV is actually making people dumber — and more likely to support populist politicians

Plus: Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta are launching an “observatory” for internet abuse at Stanford, and misconceptions about disinformation.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“They used accessible language. And that can potentially be very powerful.” A raft of new research shows that watching junky cable and other lowbrow TV is actually making people dumber — literally lowering their IQs.

In research published in the American Economic Review this month, Italian researchers showed that people with greater access to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trashy entertainment TV network, Mediaset, in the 1980s were much more likely to vote for Berlusconi later in later elections. Furthermore, people with greater exposure to Mediaset as children were “less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric.”

From the American Economic Association’s writeup of the research:

In 1980, Berlusconi was an up-and-coming media entrepreneur hoping to fill a void in the television market, which was dominated by a state-owned network driven by an educational mission. Catering to a growing middle class eager to spend on entertainment, Berlusconi spent the decade rolling out Mediaset to new markets throughout the country.

At the time, Mediaset’s programming did not suggest that he was using it as a propaganda tool for political gain. Nearly all the shows were shallow, critically poorly received, and purely for fun with no educational value. Mediaset did not have a news show component until 1990. Yet, the authors found very real effects of their influence on viewers’ political sympathies.

“The language codes that were popularized by TV also made people much more susceptible to the populist party because they used very simple language,” Ruben Durante, one of the paper’s coauthors, said. “They used accessible language. And that can potentially be very powerful.”

Andrea Tesei, another coauthor, spoke to The Washington Post’s Nikita Lalwani about some of the findings.

Lalwani: You show that exposure to entertainment TV most affected the voting behavior of the very young and the very old. Were they affected in the same way?

Tesei: For the elderly, the effect was happening through habit formation. They were hooked by the kind of television that Berlusconi showed — the salacious shows and sports. They were then much more likely to watch news shows on Mediaset when those shows were introduced universally in the ’90s. And we know that news on Mediaset was slanted toward Berlusconi.

Unlike the elderly, kids were not more likely to watch news on Mediaset later on — there was no habit formation. What was happening was that kids who were introduced to Mediaset in the 1980s were much more likely to grow up socially and civically disengaged, and even more, they appear to be more cognitively shallow compared to their peers, who grew up without this entertainment diet. We were able to show that kids who grew up in Mediaset-exposed areas performed significantly worse on standardized exams taken in adulthood.

The results also applied to another Italian populist politician, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, that was not as ideologically right-wing as Berlusconi. “The fact that our results apply not just to Berlusconi but also to the Five Star Movement suggests that there is perhaps a more general message,” Tesei said. “Less civically minded voters may be more vulnerable to populistic rhetoric.”

From another Washington Post article covering the research:

This result echoes a 2017 analysis in the same academic journal by a separate team that used variation in channel listings to calculate that Fox News gave Republicans a half-point boost in 2000, building up to a six-percentage-point advantage in 2008 compared with a baseline scenario in which the channel didn’t exist. They did not find a similar significant effect for MSNBC.

In Italy, it’s not that television made voters more conservative. Instead, Durante said, it seems to have made them more vulnerable to the anti-establishment stances favored by the country’s populist leaders of all persuasions.

At The Upshot, Jonathan Rothwell rounded up this and other research about the social effects of TV. Here’s what happened in Norway:

To estimate the effect of cable television on I.Q. scores, the Norwegian scholars analyzed data on the introduction of cable network infrastructure by municipality. They calculated years of exposure to cable by considering the age of eventual test takers when cable became available in their municipality. They controlled for any potential geographic bias by comparing siblings with greater or less exposure to cable television based on their age when cable infrastructure was put in.

They estimate that 10 years of exposure to cable television lowered I.Q. scores by 1.8 points. In related research, Mr. Hernaes finds that exposure to cable television reduced voter turnout in local elections.

An “observatory” for internet abuse. Alex Stamos, who was formerly Facebook’s chief security officer, is launching the Stanford Internet Observatory, with $5 million from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Per the press release, it’s “a cross-disciplinary initiative comprised of research, teaching and policy engagement addressing the abuse of today’s information technologies, with a particular focus on social media. This includes the spread of disinformation, cybersecurity breaches, and terrorist propaganda.” Renée DiResta, who was a 2019 Mozilla Fellow in Media, Misinformation, and Trust, is the program’s research manager. Part of the initiative includes a course to be taught at Stanford this fall:

The Internet Observatory’s new course, “Trust & Safety Engineering,” will be taught for the first time during Stanford’s fall 2019 academic quarter in the Computer Science department. It will introduce the ways in which consumer internet services are abused to cause real human harm, as well as provide potential operational, product and engineering responses.

“There are many potential uses for machine learning to keep people safe online, but this is something that is often missing from the conversation,” said Stamos. “You hear that a company took down 500 accounts belonging to a certain group that spreads disinformation, but don’t hear what we can learn from their operations so that we can do better in the future. Our research platform and courses at Stanford intend to bridge that gap.”

The team is also hoping to get access to data from social media platforms, something that has been difficult/impossible for researchers to do thus far, though there’s been a bit more openness recently. Andy Greenberg writes in Wired:

The observatory is currently negotiating with tech firms — Stamos names Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit as examples—that it hopes will offer access to user data via API in real-time and in historical archives. The observatory will then share that access with social scientists who might have a specific research project but lack the connections or resources to grapple with the immensity of the data involved. Stamos hopes that his data clearinghouse might lower the technical barriers social scientists face now when they try to study users on the internet at scale.

“They have to have a grad student write Python, they have to spend months negotiating data access agreement with tech companies, they have to build a bunch of data science infrastructure,” Stamos says. “We’re trying to do that work once, and offer it to all these people.”

But negotiating that access to data may not be an easy sell, even for someone with as many Silicon Valley connections as Stamos. Facebook has been wary of any data-sharing agreements with academics since its disastrous Cambridge Analytica scandal, a privacy debacle — which happened under Stamos’ watch — for which the FTC announced a $5 billion fine against the company just yesterday. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation also limits what sort of data tech firms can share about European users. When WIRED reached out to Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Reddit about the observatory’s plan, Twitter and Reddit declined to comment, though a Reddit spokesperson said the company hadn’t yet been approached to share its data. Facebook and Google didn’t respond.

What we get wrong about disinformation The University of Washington’s Kate Starbird writes in Nature about misconceptions around disinformation. She lays out several; here’s one:

Perhaps the most dangerous misconception is that disinformation targets only the unsavvy or uneducated, that it works only on “others.” Disinformation often specifically uses the rhetoric and techniques of critical thinking to foster nihilistic skepticism. My student Ahmer Arif has compared it to listening to static through headphones. It is designed to overwhelm our capacity to make sense of information, to push us into thinking that the healthiest response is to disengage. And we may have trouble seeing the problem when content aligns with our political identities.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     July 26, 2019, 8:04 a.m.
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