Fox News persuades viewers to defy public health guidance in early days of pandemic

Shirsho Biswas

In the critical early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States—when total confirmed cases numbered in hundreds rather than millions—Fox News persuaded viewers to defy social distancing advice offered, with increasing urgency, by public health officials.

That’s the conclusion of new research by Shirsho Biswas, a newly appointed assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Biswas co-wrote the paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research ahead of peer review, with colleagues from Columbia University and the University of Chicago, where he was finishing his doctoral work.

The researchers found that a one point increase in the Nielsen rating of Fox News viewership resulted in 8.9 percentage points less compliance to public health advisories to stay at home. Or, to put it another way, every 10 percent increase in Fox News viewership above the average led to a 1.2 percentage point reduction in the propensity to stay at home.

“We leave it to public health experts to determine if this effect is large enough to affect public health in a meaningful way. We are not experts in modeling how COVID-19 spreads,” Biswas says. “What we can document is that Fox News is persuasive in terms of viewers choosing to social distance less.”

Media power

Nearly half of all Americans report that they get their news primarily from television. And a big share of this is delivered by the 24-hour cable news networks of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

Fox News, the most-watched of these news networks, has real power to influence its viewers’ attitudes on voting, vaccines and climate change, according to recent studies.

But what about pandemics? As COVID-19 was first gaining a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, Biswas partnered with several colleagues—Andrey Simonov and Szymon Sacher of Columbia University and Jean-Pierre Dube of the University of Chicago—to investigate whether Fox News was having an impact on adherence to public health advice. Specifically, was Fox influencing viewers to defy the science-backed recommendations to stay at home and practice social distancing that were issued by increasingly concerned state, local and federal public health officials?

Establishing causality in matters of cable news is challenging, since many viewers self-select the network that they feel most closely aligns with their personal values and beliefs. And a truly controlled experiment—tracking the behavior of participants who are randomly assigned to watch only one network—would be logistically impossible.

Tracking movement

So, Biswas and his colleagues devised a quasi-experiment.

To capture viewership, they used Nielsen television ratings for Fox News (and other cable news networks) in every zip code in the United States.

To capture movement behavior, they observed GPS tracking data for millions of cell phones across the U.S. that were made available to researchers by a firm called SafeGraph.

But they didn’t look at the movement of every Fox News viewer.

A prior study had established that some randomized variation in viewership results simply from a network’s placement on a local cable provider’s channel selection. In other words, there are some people who watch Fox News when it appears on channel 017 who would not watch if it appeared on, say, channel 082.

To remove viewer bias, the researchers focused on incremental Fox News viewership arising from of randomly high channel placement, controlling for viewer demographics like income, education and political affiliation.

They tracked the movement of their cell phones from March 1, when the first stay-at-home advisories were issued, through March 13, when the president declared a national emergency, to April 24, when state-wide shutdown orders were prevalent—and compared this movement to a benchmark period in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic had hit the U.S.

To distance, or not to distance

The persistent movement among this sample of random Fox News viewers demonstrated a statistically significant increase in defiance of public health advice to stay home and practice social distancing that increased from early to mid-March.

How significant? The average Fox News Nielsen rating is 1.32. That means 1.32 percent of American televisions are tuned to Fox News. If the Nielsen rating was 2.32 in a particular zip code, the probability of staying at home was 8.9 percentage points lower compared to a zip code with an average rating (1.32).

That means more people going out when they’re told to stay home.

“This magnitude aligns with the persuasion rate of Fox News on voting behavior in the 2000 presidential election, as measured in previous research,” Biswas says.

He adds that the effect gradually increased from early March through March 13, as more regions started taking social distancing measures, and then stabilized after that.

Why Fox?

Biswas explains that the study makes no effort to pinpoint particular programs or personalities on Fox News that promoted the defiance of science-backed advice of public health experts. It does not ascribe blame to Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson or the Fox & Friends or any of its stable of commentators.

But Fox News, which tends to reflect and sometimes drive the views of the Trump administration, consistently downplayed the threat of COVID-19 becoming a pandemic that would infect more than 2 million Americans—and kill more than 115,000—in the three months after it was declared a national emergency. And it measurably influenced decisions made by its audience during the critical prelude to a medical and economic catastrophe.

Biswas offers two possible reasons why Fox News had such a persuasive effect on viewer behavior in this case. It may have convinced viewers that experts are wrong—either through the content of recent broadcasts or by causing a general distrust in scientific experts or institutions and organizations like the CDC over the long term. Or it may simply have fomented resistance to comply with social distancing guidance.

Either way, Fox News had a far greater impact on social-distancing behavior than rival CNN, which had no discernible effect over its viewers’ stay-at-home behavior over the same period, according to the study.

“We can’t say precisely why Fox News has an effect on some viewer behaviors. We don’t know if it is changing beliefs or preferences to defy authority or to align with Republican norms. It could be a combination of any of these,” Biswas says.

The paper also delivers no judgment on the network’s effect on public health—in this case the effort to deny a highly contagious virus from spreading freely among the population.

“We’re not measuring the effect of Fox News on the spread of COVID-19 or the incidence of death,” he adds. “All we are saying is that Fox News has a measurable impact on behavior. It can persuade people to defy public health advice.”

The Persuasive Effect of Fox News: Non-Compliance with Social Distance During the Covid-19 Pandemic” was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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