New research explores how conservative media misinformation may have intensified the severity of the pandemic

Coronavirus infections have surged in a number of states, setting the United States on a markedly different pandemic trajectory than other wealthy nations.

In recent weeks, three studies have focused on conservative media’s role in fostering confusion about the seriousness of the coronavirus. Taken together, they paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others.

The end result, according to one of the studies, is that infection and mortality rates are higher in places where one pundit who initially downplayed the severity of the pandemic — Fox News’s Sean Hannity — reaches the largest audiences.

“We are receiving an incredible number of studies and solid data showing that consuming far-right media and social media content was strongly associated with low concern about the virus at the onset of the pandemic,” said Irene Pasquetto, chief editor of the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, which published one of the studies.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories 

In April, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign published a peer-reviewed study examining how Americans’ media diets affected their beliefs about the coronavirus. 

Administering a nationally representative phone survey with 1,008 respondents, they found that people who got most of their information from mainstream print and broadcast outlets tended to have an accurate assessment of the severity of the pandemic and their risks of infection. But those who relied on conservative sources, such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or unfounded rumors, such as the belief that taking vitamin C could prevent infection, that the Chinese government had created the virus, and that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the pandemic’s threat “to damage the Trump presidency.” 

These findings held even after controlling for viewers’ political affiliation, education, gender and age.

Beliefs lead to actions 

working paper posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May examined whether these incorrect beliefs affected real-world behavior. 

The authors used anonymous location data from millions of cellphones to explore how the popularity of Fox News in a given Zip code related to social distancing practices there. By March 15, they found, a 10 percent increase in Fox News viewership within a Zip code reduced its residents’ propensity to stay home, in compliance with public health guidelines, by about 1.3 percentage points.

“The effect that we measure could be driven by the long-term message of Fox News, which is that the mainstream media often report ‘fake news’ and have a political agenda,” Simonov said. “This could result in lowering trust in institutions and experts, including health experts in the case of the pandemic.” 

It’s plausible, of course, that this difference in behavior could be attributed to other characteristics of Fox viewers, such as their age or political ideology. To control for these factors, the authors used “the quasi-random assignment of each news channel’s relative position across cable markets” as an instrumental variable.

How conservative media consumers’ behavior could worsen the pandemic 

Another recent working paper, by economists at the University of Chicago and other institutions, similarly finds that Fox News viewers are less likely to comply with public health guidelines than consumers of other media. But their paper takes the analysis two steps further: It finds that Fox viewers aren’t a monolith, with fans of some media personalities acting distinctly from others. It also provides evidence that those behavioral differences are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus and mortality rate of covid-19 the disease it causes, in certain areas.

They found that Hannity viewership was associated with changing pandemic-related behaviors (like hand-washing and canceling travel plans) four days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson viewership was associated with changing behaviors three days earlier. 

Given the importance of individual behavior in curbing the spread of the coronavirus, it stands to reason that places where people were slower to take preventive steps might see more severe outbreaks. That’s exactly what the final step of their analysis shows.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/new-research-explores-how-conservative-media-misinformation-may-have-intensified-the-severity-of-the-pandemic/ar-BB15XnLY

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