Why the series you binge-watch could affect the next election

Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.
Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Frank Navasky, played by Greg Kinnear, writes a column in support of his girlfriend’s bookstore which is in financial distress. 

He writes that Fox Books (the big, bad chain store) threatens the survival of “one of the 20th century’s most profound truths: You are what you read”.

A new book by Jodie Jackson, You Are What You Read, argues that this truth is hurting us badly. 

Contemporary negativity bias in news media, she argues, affects how we see the world around us, impairing our mental health and the choices we make. 

News has become characterised by deliberate invention, gross sensationalism (clickbait!) and, often, simply lazy inaccuracy. 

And just like most of us would agree that our food diet affects our health, so, too, does our media diet affect our mental health. 

Based on a wide range of academic research, Jackson shows that our perception of reality is far too easily influenced by false narratives – and that there are practical steps we can take to improve our mental health hygiene. (Like leaving Twitter.)

The type and quality of media we consume also affects our cognitive ability. 

This, in turn, has political consequences. This is the remarkable finding of a new study by economists Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti and Andrea Tesei, which will soon appear in the American Economic Review

They exploit a natural experiment in Italy: the expansion of Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial entertainment television in the 1980s. 

Some municipalities, for various technical reasons, received reception of Berlusconi’s TV channels, Mediaset, early during the 1980s, while other municipalities (of similar shape and size) only gained access much later. 

Importantly, Mediaset channels were initially entirely devoted to light entertainment and movies. 

There were no educational programmes or news. The authors can therefore study the effect of entertainment TV on those viewers in municipalities with access compared to those without. 

The results confirm what our parents warned us against: entertainment TV makes you dumber. 

In their words: “For individuals first exposed to Mediaset as children, we find that entertainment TV has a negative impact on cognitive abilities in adulthood, as measured by standardised numeracy and literacy tests.”

It had political consequences too. 

Berlusconi first ran for office in 1994, several years after almost all municipalities had access to his commercial network. 

Yet the authors show that those areas where Mediaset first appeared were more likely to vote for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. 

They did so in 1994, but also in each of the five elections until 2008, almost 25 years after Mediaset first appeared. 

The results are especially large for heavy TV viewers; children (below 10) and older adults (55 and above) were almost ten percentage points more likely to vote for Berlusconi. 

“Given that all municipalities were progressively exposed to Mediaset by 1990 and that our coefficient captures only the effect of a few additional years of exposure, the effect on voting behaviour is quite remarkable,” the authors write. 

There’s more. When the effect on Berlusconi’s party disappears, it reappears in a different guise: support for the even more populist Five Star Movement in the 2013 elections. 

Say the authors: “These findings suggest that exposure to entertainment TV made viewers more supportive of populist movements and leaders in general, and not just of Berlusconi or the conservative camp.”

The shift towards populist parties worldwide, these results suggest, may be a consequence of the mass rollout of entertainment TV and the increased time people spend in front of their screens. 

Since the 1980s, TV screen time for children in particular has increased exponentially.

A 2017 US study showed that children up to age eight spend more than two hours daily on screen media (mostly TV and video viewing). 

A similar study in 2015 found that for eight to twelve year-olds, the amount of time is almost double that.

The good news is that TV and video screen time is falling. 

The bad news is that it is replaced by mobile phones. 

A report be eMarketer in early June predicts that the average US adult will spend 3 hours and 43 minutes on mobile devices in 2019, 8 minutes more than on TV, the first time mobile has overtaken TV.

The consequences of this are unclear. But as Jackson points out, competition for our attention pushes news agencies to highlight negative stories. 

“The depressing thing is,” she writes, “that those that report from a place of nobility are scarce in the current media environment and poor-quality journalism has overtaken good-quality journalism. Instead, many journalists are forced to report whatever will generate profit, governed by audience-engagement targets, advertising revenue and reach. Because of its cheap production costs and entertaining nature, poor-quality journalism is thriving in news organisations – something that benefits their bottom line but hurts us both psychologically and socially. We are told a manufactured and manipulated version of the truth. Sometimes it is not the truth at all.”

Just as we carefully curate what we eat, perhaps it is time, for our own mental health and that of our community, to be cognisant of what we read and watch. 

In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian who starred in a hit TV series in which he played a teacher who unexpectedly became president, decided to run for president.

He won 73% of the vote. Is that a sign of things to come? A 21st century iteration of Frank Navasky’s dictum would probably read: You elect who you watch.

Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.

This article originally appeared in the 4 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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