In recent years, Fox News has become a fixture at the top of the cable news ratings. The network has built a fiercely loyal audience by spoon-feeding them exactly what they want to hear, and it’s an audience that isn’t easily turned away even when its hosts spout conspiracy theories and blatant lies. In fact, in a piece last week, the UC Berkeley political scientist Lawrence Lessig argued that Fox is a bigger threat to democracy than MSNBC or CNN ever were, because it’s able to spread its nonsense to so many people at once.
While it’s been well known that Fox News is an explicitly conservative propaganda organization, it has until now managed to keep this reality somewhat veiled. Its opinion shows, from Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck to Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, were all agenda-setting and pushed the issues that defined Republican politics for decades, but they were still opinion shows. The revelations of the Dominion case, however, have forced the hand of Fox’s leadership in a way that no amount of pious denialism could have.
A new study in the American Economic Review finds that watching Fox News causes a substantial rightward shift in viewers’ attitudes, and that translates directly into a greater willingness to vote for Republicans. The authors, Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu, estimate that if Fox News had never existed, the average two-party share of presidential votes would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004, and 6.34 points lower in 2008.
Their research relies on an extensive data set—individual/zip code/county level voting behavior, transcripts from the most popular shows, and more—to showcase how much ideological bias each of the major TV networks has. Then, they use a statistical model to predict how much each network is able to persuade its audience toward the right. They compare the results of their model to actual election data, and find that Fox is able to convince 3 to 28 percent of its initial viewership to vote Republican, depending on how you measure the audience’s responsiveness.
The researchers also conduct an experiment, in which they pay regular Fox News viewers to switch to CNN for four weeks, and then assess how their opinions on a range of topics (like the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests) change. The results are clear: Fox News viewers are less likely to be informed on the topics they watch, and their views on controversial issues like racial justice are substantially more extreme than those of CNN viewers.
The results of the study add to the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that Fox News isn’t just a media outlet, but a powerful political force that actively shapes American public opinion. And while it may be tempting for Democrats to seek a wedge between Fox News viewers and the rest of the country, this isn’t likely to work. Instead, progressives need to do everything they can to fight the Big Lie on Fox’s airwaves—and not just because it’s good for their party. It’s good for the country, too.