Getting that awkward Facebook Messenger notification from your distant uncle is never fun. As soon as the notification dings and you look down to see his name, the secondhand embarrassment fills your conscience as you wonder which it would be this time: the yearly holiday BBQ plans or repugnant social commentary? These days it is almost exclusively the latter. You swipe the notification away, hoping that the intrusive thought about the message’s content will elude you. But it gnaws at you relentlessly until the mysterious process in your brain forces it open. Repugnant social commentary it is…
It is no question that the media we consume has a profound effect on our individual beliefs and our shared values as a society. One might think that, with such a keen influence on the social psyche, the content of the news and entertainment that we consume should be closely studied and carefully scrutinized. However, the major news companies, even more shrouded by the advent of social media, proves that the opposite is the case. While corporate media, especially the right-wing variety, package addicting content to the masses, they use their power to normalize their status-quo agenda and obfuscate their true influence.
Although most media organizations, right and left, package their product through addictive means, perhaps no liberal organization is more potent and emblematic of the dangers of this trend than Fox News.
It is not entirely clear which comes first, the chicken or its racist tendencies. Would the highly polarized viewpoints of Fox News’s consumers be just as warped if they were without it entirely? Perhaps Fox News is responding to a demand already inherent in the American public. This theory, however, does not explain the “large decreases in knowledge of
information covered on Fox News” compared to alternative networks. Reducing one’s consumption of Fox News and viewing different news content also “moderated [viewers] attitudes and bolstered knowledge they need to hold elected officials accountable.”
Far more likely, given these realities, is that Fox News tries to sell an addictive product that makes its customers’ symptoms worse, thereby drawing them in further. By focusing on “sensationalism and identity politics,” the network’s founding established itself as a catalyst for conservative cultural values. Since then, by pushing the ‘revenge-button’ in their viewers’ brains, the network has enabled addictive tendencies in its huge audience by scaremongering and broadcasting “tribal hate porn.”
Fox News’s practices have allowed them to dominate consumers on the right better than any of similarly situated networks on the left. The network has risen to fame as the most popular news channel on cable TV.
Since then, by pushing the ‘revenge-button’ in their viewers’ brains, the network has enabled addictive tendencies in its huge audience by scaremongering and pushing “tribal hate porn.”
But what specific tactics make Fox News most successful? A Yale study attempted to describe the process by which most American news entities—but Fox News especially—cultivates their cult-like following. By setting a broad agenda, filtering content to fit that agenda, and then filtering coverage of an issue, a network can strategically create a consumer-dependency on their content.
Let’s look at a prime example of this process—the 2020 presidential election. The network began by setting an agenda. Immediately after the election, Fox News began relentlessly questioning the results, thereby setting the agenda of election integrity (or the supposed lack thereof). Once the topic was sufficiently known to its viewers, it framed the issue as substantially similar to actions of the Democrats. Disregarding the obvious distinction between voicing disapproval for an electoral process that would crown a less popular candidate the winner and airing debunked voter fraud claims (which later forced the network into legal damage-control), Fox News framed it as a partisan, instead of an anti-democracy, issue. Finally, in the post-carnage cleanup stage of the insurrection, Fox news filtered out any coverage of the hearings held to investigate prominent Republicans’ involvement in the insurrection itself.
And there is actually a neurological reason these tactics are so successful. As journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie has described, “any perceived threat — physical, metaphysical, ideological, or imagined — causes the amygdalae to alert the brain to prepare for a fight.” This response triggers a release of dopamine, which is accompanied by various physical responses like increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Beyond dopamine’s addictive effect, our emotional response to this triggered anger can have similar effects. “The more we use anger to dominate or control others (or to protect ourselves),” McRobbie writes, “the more this outrage shapes our identity.” “It feels good,” Dr. Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the US Department of Health and Human Services, said. “It feeds into your sense of self and you end up liking it.”
These tendencies were echoed in my conversation with Professor Mina Cikara, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. “My expertise is in the domain of intergroup behavior and conflict, so I study how people’s feelings, thoughts, and brains may be changed when they stop interacting with others,” she said. When asked if current political times are unique in its group interaction, she responded: “My understanding from the data is that yeah, things have gotten a lot worse. Particularly in the domain of affective polarization—I just call it prejudice.”
She spoke about how powerful and well-coordinated groups of political elites might use or even create conflict to manipulate a population through prejudice. “There are all manner[s] of threat that can come up and remain salient in intergroup conflicts, or just intergroup context,” she said. These threats are wielded like knives by those who know how to properly throw them. “One source of threat that gets quite a bit of attention is economic threat,” Professor Cikara added. Fox News’s obsession with inflation under the Biden administration, despite its potential genesis under the Trump administration, exemplifies this tendency perfectly. This incongruency or inaccuracy does not matter to their network nor its viewers. As Professor Cikara opined, “Whether or not there is any reason to believe that’s actually what is going on is beside the point—it’s a story that people tell.”
And this economic threat is hardly the only story told. Professor Cikara added, “another source of threat is symbolic threat, when political leaders or elites in a group of any kind will argue that there is another group out there who is seeking to change our way of life, to undermine our values, our traditions, the things that we cherish, our morals, everything.” This rhetoric is particularly dangerous, because, as Professor Cikara outlined, “when I feel like I’m under threat, there is no legal or psychological morality that precludes self-defense. ‘I am righteous in my self-defense.’ If I feel like I’m under attack, almost everything is on the table now.”
This incongruency or inaccuracy does not matter to their network nor its viewers. As Professor Cikara opined, “Whether or not there is any reason to believe that’s actually what is going on is beside the point—it’s a story that people tell.”
When leveraged against groups hardly capable of destroying an entire way of life, especially a way of life so entrenched as the one conservative mainstream media pushes, the story is more acute within its manipulated audience. “So you see this marshaled quite a bit in respect to groups that very little political power by dint of not having many people in them,” she stipulated. The double-think inherent in naming a small, politically unimpactful group as one capable of metastasizing into a disrupting force is no accident. “Group size—this is like decades-old research from psychology, political science, sociology and so on—is one feature that is associated with threat.” Finally, “the perception that any gain of theirs is a loss of ours, that sort of zero-sum instantiation can actually really give it a lot of weight, if people really do perceive that their gain is our loss, that is a very compelling form of threat.”
The double-think inherent in naming a small, political unimpactful group as one capable of metastasizing into a disrupting force is no accident.
Aided by the dopamine effect described earlier, these tactics allow Fox News to spin its audience further and further into their web, forcing them to be enveloped by the same tendency as well. The result: a public addicted to extreme views and a network profiting off platforming them.