Can the media impact how we vote? Short answer? Yes. Long answer? There’s a lot to cover. The media is important for providing people with information, as well as presenting and shaping opinions. These factors can have a tremendous amount of influence on how voters vote.
The media is an important source of information for voters across the political spectrum. Many Americans keep track of the news throughout the day. With the proliferation of computers, smartphones, and other devices, it’s easy to do so. This constant flow of curated information has an impact on our world-views and can determine what information we have access to. This will impact our judgments.
Media sources are important for providing information and shaping opinions. First, information itself can shape opinions. People pass judgments based on the information available to them. However, as people grow more partisan they are more likely to view that information through an ideological lens. This slant means that people will ignore information that challenges their preconceived beliefs while embracing information that supports them.
Further, opinionated pundits often go beyond purveying facts and instead push their own analysis. In turn, their opinions can influence other people and their opinions. These pundits are brought into the spotlight through media. News sources do a poor job distinguishing between ideologically driven pundits and more neutral journalism.
These factors can and will impact our political outlooks. Whether a voter trusts or distrusts the government, businesses, or even fellow citizens, can be dramatically impacted by the information and opinions they are exposed to.
Building Partisan Echo Chambers
Pew Research has found that when it comes to media consumption, liberal and conservative Americans inhabit “different worlds”. The sources and media that liberals engage with are dramatically different from the sources that conservatives engage with. There is almost no overlap. This may be creating echo chambers.
47% of conservatives cite Fox News as their primary source of information. Liberals are more varied with their primary sources. CNN, the New York Times, NPR and MSNBC were the most frequently named sources. However, even the top source, CNN, was cited by only 15% of liberals as their primary source. Both conservatives and liberals trusted only some news sources while distrusting others. Conservatives distrusted a greater number of media channels.
Many media observers have noted that media sources are biased. However, measuring such biases is inherently difficult. Surveys have been conducted and have found that some news sources, such as the New York Times, do lean left. Other news sources, such as Fox News, slant right. Some sources, such as the New Yorker (left) and Breitbart (right) swing far towards the ends of the political spectrum.
It’s possible that this process is creating a feedback loop that is furthering partisan sentiments. As voters move farther to the left or right, the media may move with them. Doing so makes sense for the media as audiences will be more likely to tune in. This will drive ad revenues. However, as the media becomes more partisan, it may impact voters, making them more partisan. The process could repeat itself indefinitely, with the voting population becoming more divided.
Social media is also becoming an echo chamber. Pew found that Conservatives were more likely to surround themselves with like-minded conservatives in their social media channels. Meanwhile, liberals were more likely to de-friend and even end personal relationships with people who had different political views. Social media is a newer form of media, but it is becoming an increasingly influential one.
Are Unscrupulous Parties Using Google and Facebook to Influence Voters?
Speaking of social media, Google and Facebook have found themselves under a tremendous amount of scrutiny recently. Allegations have emerged that the tech giants, among others, may played a major role in the 2016 Presidential election. There were even Federal investigators looking at how much influence Russia and others had during the contested Presidential race.
Many experts now believe that fake news pushed through social media is being used to influence elections. Powerful governments, such as the United States and former the Soviet Union, used to spend huge amounts of money setting up media sources in foreign countries. These media sources were then used to push American (or Soviet) interests via propaganda. Voice of America is perhaps the most well-known of these channels.
Social media, however, has made it easier to get into the “propaganda” game. With Facebook, getting content to go viral is easier now than ever before. Meanwhile, Google Ad revenues have been pumping money into “alt” news websites. Entire publishing houses have been set up in Moldova and elsewhere to produce and push fake news. Many of these publishers are driven by ad revenues.
Sensational headlines, earth-shattering-but-bogus stories, and conspiracy theories allow these seedy publishers to generate quick cash irrespective of facts. Of course, none of this is new. Tabloid newspapers have been around for decades, filling up grocery store checkout lines with stories of aliens and lizard people politicians. Social media and online ad revenues are making it easier than ever before to spread fake news. Still, the impact of social media and fake news was felt during the most recent Presidential election, and could hint at future problems.
Donald Trump Got a Lot of Free Air Time; Bernie Sanders Was Forgotten
There’s an old saying, “any publicity is good publicity.” That might not quite hold up in the real world, but name recognition is important for securing votes. Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign caught many expert politicos off-guard. Trump’s campaign was often treated as a spectacle. The media couldn’t look away and covered Trump’s campaign frequently.
This produced a lot of free airtime for Trump. Other politicians had to pay for ads, and hope that people wouldn’t click away. Trump could rely on CNN, Fox News, and other TV channels to cover him and generate free publicity. Despite having a smaller ground-game and less money, Trump stormed through the Republican Primaries and secured the national election.
Data crunching firm MediaQuant found that Donald Trump received about $4.96 billion dollars in free media coverage in the 12 months leading up the election. President Trump ran a relatively cheap campaign, raising “only” $340 million dollars through the Primary and General seasons. Given his victory, the value of that free publicity cannot be underestimated.
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders was hoping to launch his own populist-driven campaign. Sanders’ far-left political views did appeal to a considerable number of voters. However, the media rarely seemed interested in covering the cantankerous seventy-something democratic socialist.
Sanders struggled to build momentum in the face of what his campaign alleged was a “Bernie Blackout.” According to this narrative, the media often ignored Sanders outright. The campaign also argued that when the Senator was given the media spotlight, the reporting was often negative. Negative op-eds were common in the Washington Post, New York Times, and elsewhere.
Interestingly, a Harvard study did find that Sanders was ignored early in the primary election season. He was crowded out not only by Democratic rival Hillary Clinton but also Donald Trump. The Harvard study supports what many people have been arguing, “the Donald” was given a disproportionate amount of coverage, thus fueling his insurgent campaign.
Clinton Blames Media For 2016 Presidential Loss
In her post-mortem memoir “What Happened”, Hillary Clinton outlines several factors that contributed to her loss. The media was one factor called out. Clinton specifically called out the New York Times for its coverage of her private email debacle, arguing that the incident never deserved to be treated like a high-profile scandal.
Hillary Clinton received $3.24 billion worth of coverage in the 12 months leading up to the election. While this trails Trump’s $5 billion, it does represent a significant amount of money. Still, media time doesn’t appear to have been a problem for Clinton.
However, negative media portrayals of Clinton and especially fake news stories alleging murder, child prostitution, and other serious crimes were common. The extent and scale of these stories was unprecedented.
Conclusion: The Media Can Influence Voters and Voters Can Influence Media
The media seems to be fueling the increasing bi-partisan nature of voters. This was clearly seen in the 2016 election. At the same time, however, voter preferences and the need to raise ad revenues are also influencing the media itself. The last few years have seen a growth of “alternative” media sources, such as Breitbart. Meanwhile, with the growth of social media everyday people can share their opinions with large audiences.
While the above points focus on the United States, similar trends have been observed across Europe and other parts of the world. Further, increasing partisan divides are being felt at the election polls. Consider Brexit and the rise of nationalist parties across Europe. In Asia, many governments work to restrict media sources. This might explain the comparatively low levels of unrest and political turmoil.
While the media can influence voters, it is far from the only factor. Evolving political views and increasing partisanship can be tied to many factors, including changing economic conditions, growing wealth disparities, education, and demographic changes. Of course, the media can influence how people react to these changes by determining what information and opinions people have access to. While the media may not be the only factor shaping opinions, it is among the most influential.
- Pew Media Survey: 47% of Conservatives Call Fox News Their ‘Main News Source’ – Washington Examiner
- The Political Environment on Social Media – Pew Research
- $2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump – The New York Times
- ‘I would be your president’: Clinton blames Russia, FBI chief for 2016 election loss – The Washington Post
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