February 24, 2020

Is TV Turning You Into a Populist?

“Does watching television make people stupid? Are stupid people more likely to vote for populist parties? And can these effects linger for years, or even decades?

If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have been highly skeptical of these claims. They sound far too much like the sort of thing educated people want to believe. But a meticulous new paper published in the American Economic Review, one of the world’s most prestigious social-science journals, suggests that there might be truth to these clichés.

In the study, three economists, Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti, and Andrea Tesei, were able to provide strong evidence for a shocking set of conclusions: Watching a lot of entertainment TV does seem to have an adverse impact on your intelligence. And it also makes you more likely to vote for populist parties.

Until the late 1970s, Italian television was an earnest affair. The only national channels were run by RAI, the state broadcaster. On average, RAI only broadcast for about 10 hours a day. Nearly two-thirds of its content consisted of serious news or educational programming. Even advertising had to meet high moral standards; ads for pet food, for example, were not allowed to show moving images of cats or dogs. Apparently the bosses at RAI thought it was inappropriate for companies to hawk food for Fluffy or Rover while people in the developing world were suffering from famine.”

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