Evidence made public as a result of Dominion Voting Systems slander lawsuit against Fox News reveals that Fox News executives and on-air personalities knew that Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him were false. Soon after the election, informed observers at Fox (like those elsewhere) already knew that Trump had lost legitimately. But they chose to conceal this truth on the air, for fear that broadcasting it would anger the channel’s audience and lead to lower ratings:
[P]rominent [Fox] anchors like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Maria Bartiromo are evidently very aware that the public—or, more precisely, their public—doesn’t share their view of claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election made by former President Donald Trump and his allies like lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell….
Documents from a defamation lawsuit brought against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine manufacturer whose product was implicated in the fraud allegations, show the hosts fully understood that the theories pushed by Powell et al. were, in their words, “insane” ideas from an “idiot” and a “lying,” “complete nut.”
Still, they permitted—even welcomed—advocates of those theories on Fox airwaves because the audience liked it. As Carlson put it, “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” though Carlson himself did not. Or, as Bartiromo agreed, “It’s easier to get good ratings when you give your audience something they want to hear,” and “a peaceful transition” between the Trump and Biden administrations was not what they wanted to hear. Or Hannity: “You don’t piss off the base.”
Rupert Murdoch, Executive Chairman of News Corp, which owns Fox, appears to have made a similar calculation. He and others at Fox feared that if the network told viewers the truth about the election, its audience would decamp, perhaps to other right-wing networks, such as Newsmax.
In addition to highlighting the cynical nature of Fox’s decision-making, this incident also sheds light on the dynamics of political misinformation. Many assume that purveyors of misinformation deceive an audience that would otherwise naturally gravitate towards the truth. But, in reality, Fox was catering to its viewers’ preexisting prejudices. They already believed that the election had been stolen from Trump, or at least had strong predispositions in that direction. The network was not so much forming their beliefs as pandering to them. Had it refused to do so, they might have gone to someone else who would.
This story is a particularly striking example of the ways in which the demand for political misinformation is a bigger problem than the supply. I summarized the dynamic here:
[T]he low odds that any one vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election ensure that many consumers of political information are acting not as truth-seekers, but as “political fans” eager to endorse anything that supports their position or casts the opposing party and its supporters in a bad light. These biases affect not only ordinary voters, but also otherwise highly knowledgeable ones, and even policymakers and politicians.
This demand for misinformation is the real root of the problem. If it were lower, the supply would not be much of a danger, and at the very least would not affect many voters’ political decision-making.
I also previously wrote about this issue here, here, and here.
Republicans’ reaction to Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and to some other recent events highlight the problem of right-wing voters susceptibility to myths and conspiracy theories that reinforce their preexisting views. But left-wingers are also prone to the same dynamic. Social science research finds that bias in evaluation of political information is roughly comparable across the political spectrum. Both right and left are relatively more willing to believe misinformation that confirms their priors. Examples that primarily appeal to the left include 9/11 “trutherism” (discussed in Chapter 3 of my book Democracy and Public Ignorance), and claims that GMO foods should be banned or because they are supposedly more dangerous than “natural” ones.
Even if driven by viewer demand, Fox’s actions were still reprehensible. It is obviously unethical for news network leaders and commentators to become knowing purveyors of falsehood.
The above also should not be taken as proof that Fox’s decisions had no effect. Had the network’s most prominent commentators and hosts fortrightly told their viewers the truth about the election, it might have changed at least some minds (even as other viewers might have simply switched channels). Partisan Republicans may be more likely to let go of misconceptions when told the truth by opinion leaders on their “side,” as opposed to partisan opponents or “mainstream media” sources, which many conservatives view with deep suspicion. “Political fans” of all stripes are likely more willing to accept unpleasant truths from players on their own team.
But the central role of viewer demand in this episode does suggest that Fox and other purveyors of misinformation are less powerful than often thought. Such influence as they have arises primarily because many people have strong preexisting prejudices that lead them to believe certain types of lies. If Fox refuses to tell them what they want to hear, they might turn to someone else who will.
The crucial role of the demand side also has implications for efforts to address the problem of political misinformation. I summarized them in previous pieces on the subject, most recently here. Among other things, it suggests we are unlikely to make much progress by trying to curb specific sources of misinformation, whether it be a social media platform like Twitter, or a network like Fox. Rather, we should seek structural solutions that reduce political polarization and shift decision-making to formats where people have better incentives to curb their prejudices and seek out the truth.