90 Days of Following Fox News and MSNBC

I don't consider myself a political person. Of course, I have opinions on issues, but about only those closely related to science, reason, and critical thinking I am passionate. Many of my right-leaning friends and family members seem to have a visceral disgust or even hatred for those with left-leaning views. More recently, perhaps because of the rise of the Republican party led Donald Trump, many of my left-leaning friends have demonstrated that same visceral disgust or even hatred for those with right-leaning views. As a social psychologist, I am aware of the reasons and theories behind political beliefs, thanks to the work of other social psychologists, specifically Jonathan Haidt, author of the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But an academic or conceptual understanding is different from an empathetic understanding. In other words, I know why people hold extreme and highly unreasonable positions on issues, but it still blows my mind. So a social experiment, I wanted to start following strong left- and right-leaning news outlets to see if I could better understand (empathetically) how people can become so politically polarized. About three months ago, I followed both Fox News and MSNBC on Facebook, and checked my feed every day, two or more times per day. The results? Not only do I now have more empathy for those with extreme political views, but I can also better explain why, from a psychological perspective, and issue a strong warning to all those not wanting to be a puppet to the conservative or liberal media.

Fox News is Not as Bad as I Was Led to Believe

The majority of my friends on social media lean liberal. Before following Fox News, the only exposure I had to Fox News was the occasional extreme position they took on some issue when my friends shared a story lampooning their position. Of course, this kind of selective exposure would not be considered a representative sample of what Fox News is about. In fact, this would be considered a highly biased sample. This would be like judging the quality of television shows in general by only being exposed to episodes of Barney. In a very informal evaluation of a random sampling of 100 stories posted to the Fox News Facebook feed, I found that 32% were non-political, 28% were politically neutral, balanced, or appeared to support some traditionally liberal issue, and 40% supported a conservative narrative. Not quite the extremist monster it was built up to be.

Catering to Their Audiences

The Facebook Effect has to do with people sharing their best moments, leading to a distortion of their true lives from the perspective of others (how come our friends are always on vacation?) Similarly, media outlets cater to their audiences by selectively sharing stories that they feel their audiences want to hear. For example, MSNBC's overwhelmingly liberal base wants to hear stories that support the liberal narrative—good things about liberals, bad things about conservatives. I was disappointed to find out that MSNBC (and even my favorite new source, NPR) glossed over or in some cases, did not report on some pretty newsworthy stories that happened to reflect poorly on many liberal narratives. For example, how the students at Evergreen College responded to Professor Bret Weinstein's challenge to racial segregation or Lisa Durden's comments on "Tucker Carlson Tonight." By being exposed to only the good and not the bad and ugly parts of one's political ideology, it is clear how one can start to develop an extreme ideology.

My Conclusions

Follow both Fox News and MSNBC on social media or watch both on television—never just one. I used to think that sticking with a somewhat neutral source such as NPR or REUTERS was good enough—and it is, if all you want are the facts. However, media sources such as MSNBC and Fox News do add value in that they provide insight into how others are interpreting the facts and what narratives they are building around those facts. You certainly don't have to agree with those narratives, but you should be exposed to them. This kind of exposure to uncomfortable ideas and narratives you disagree with encourages reasoning and promotes critical thinking. And what can be more important than that? :)


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