Every night, Fox News paints a picture of reality that Americans outside the Fox News bubble would not recognize.
In Fox News world, the FBI is conducting a witch hunt against President Trump; the Stormy Daniels saga is part of a conspiracy to take down the president; Hillary Clinton’s corruption is still a major threat to American decency; and the mainstream media is ignoring Trump’s accomplishments, like securing the borders, lowering the unemployment rate, and withdrawing the US from bad international deals and treaties. These stories clash with the world that appears just a few channels away on mainstream media outlets like MSNBC and CNN.
We curated a list of topics that have dominated headlines in the past year and analyzed how much Fox News covered them compared with MSNBC and CNN. The data shows that the dissonance exists in virtually every prominent story.
When President Nixon faced impeachment, one thing that made it possible was the media agreed on a certain set of facts. This is no longer the case.
Fox News and its alternate reality is by far the main source of political news for many Trump voters. (The same survey found that Clinton voters did not congregate around a single media source in the way Trump voters did.) And Trump voters who live in the Fox News reality have been shielded from the plethora of reasons Trump is embroiled in scandal. If special counsel Robert Mueller indicts Trump, it will seem unreasonable; if Trump doesn’t win reelection in 2020 by a landslide, it will seem like it’s because the FBI and mainstream media colluded to smear Trump.
Why does this alternate reality resonate so much with its viewers? And why are those viewers so impervious to any story that clashes with the Fox News reality?
Fox News and social sorting
The best way to think of Fox News is that it’s an identity-reinforcing machine.
We live in a polarized era. But the problem goes beyond partisan polarization. We live in an age when our political identities have merged with our other identities.
Decades ago, it was more likely for a Democrat to also be, say, a conservative. Today, if you’re a conservative, there’s a high likelihood that you’re Republican. There’s also a high likelihood that you’re also white and Christian. And the flip side is also true: People who are nonwhite, secular, and liberal have aligned with Democrats.
This is called “sorting.”
University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason has been studying the implications of this sorting. Among the things she has found is that sorting has the effect of intensifying our emotions in response to political messages.
In other words, the more sorted socially you are, the more intense your reaction might be to, say, a news story that casts your party or issue preferences in a good or bad light.
This means that more and more of us have a hard time looking at political information and coming to rational conclusions. Instead, we instinctively jump to the partisan conclusion because it’s how we protect our identities.
The dynamic tends to lead to a more overheated discourse. As Mason puts it, “As social sorting increases in the American electorate, the cooler heads inspired by cross-cutting identities are likely to be taking up a smaller portion of the electorate.”
Sorting has been an asymmetrical phenomenon, however. It has taken place on both sides, of course, but according to Mason and co-author Julia Wronski, Republicans tend to be a lot more sorted by demographics:
Which brings us back to Fox News. In an age when we have become more socially sorted, we have become more enthusiastic about our side — and angrier about the other side. And with Republicans being more sorted than Democrats, that suggests there’s great demand for a steady diet of messaging that builds up the GOP and tears down Democrats.
The alternate reality that Fox News serves exactly that purpose. As Mason told me, “It’s like Fox was created for this moment.”
How “fake news” fortifies Fox News’s alternate reality
The biggest enemy of Fox News’s alternate reality is, of course, actual reality. And while mainstream media has its own problems, professional journalists for the most part try to give an accurate rendering of that reality.
That’s why Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon said, “The media here is the opposition party.” It’s why Fox News’s top pundit Sean Hannity has critiqued “mainstream media” more than 350 times in the past year, according to an analysis of transcript data. The pro-Trump media giant Sinclair Broadcasting Group recently forced its local anchors to read a promo that said, “We are concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”
Trump has filled in the subtext.
When journalist Lesley Stahl, in a private conversation with the president, asked Trump why he attacks the media so much, Trump reportedly said, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
This thinking has filtered down to the rank and file. According to a recent poll by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, 39 percent of conservatives say negatives news stories about politicians or political groups are always “fake news” — even if they are accurate. This is far more than liberals who say the same.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate how astounding it is for more than one-third of conservatives to admit that they’re calling something “fake” when it is, well, not.
But it all makes sense when you think about Mason’s work on sorting.
To be sure, this kind of thinking isn’t restricted to conservatives. The right may be more sorted than the left, but the left is still prone to the same cognitive tendencies.
In fact, Yale Law professor Dan Kahan elegantly shows how politics overwhelms our logic in experiments where he has subjects answer a simple number question about something non-political, like skin treatments. As expected, people who are good with numbers do well, regardless of whether the are Democrats or Republicans.
However, when Kahan gives subjects the exact same question, but this time about something political like gun control, even the number-smart people figure out a way to use that data to argue for their partisan positions — even if it’s the wrong answer.
Exploiting those allegiances is what Fox News does — and does really well. Its steady stream of messages affirms its audience’s worldview and enables it to dismiss other media outlets that present evidence of wrongdoing by Trump and his associates.
Fox News immunizes its viewers from evidence that contradicts their reality. That reality shows that they were right to choose Trump because he’s creating jobs, lowering unemployment, and securing our borders — and everyone who says otherwise is just trying to undermine a great president.