We are living in confusing times; Trump, Brexit, the rise of the far-right in Europe and there must be a reason for it. We need to find a scapegoat and an unlikely one has been identified. Voters have been watching too much rubbish TV and it has rotted their brains.
How can we prove this? Well, a new and comprehensive study has tried to do this in the home of rubbish TV, Italy. Indeed, in 1991, when the ITV franchises were auctioned off to the highest bidders, scaremongers, worried about the inevitable decline in broadcasting standards, released adverts saying; Italian housewives do it on TV”. Innocent days.
The researchers studied the growth of the Italian broadcaster Mediaset, and found that those heavily exposed as children to its outpouring of cartoons, soap operas and quiz shows were almost 10% more likely to support populists, because poorer cognitive skills left them more susceptible to politicians peddling simplistic argument.
The paper, published in the American Economic Review, is fascinating partly because of the theories it rejects. Perhaps you’re assuming that because Mediaset is Silvio Berlusconi’s outfit – his son is now the chief executive – he must have used it for rightwing propaganda. But the network featured little news coverage during the period in question, and anyway the “Mediaset effect” proved equally beneficial to his rival Beppe Grillo’s leftish Five Star Movement: it was populism, not Berlusconi-ism, that got the boost.
Or maybe you think the same kind of people were liable to watch Mediaset and vote populist, without one causing the other? But the gradual geographic spread of the channel’s reach, over the course of the 1980s, created a “natural experiment” that virtually rules that out. Kids in towns where it was harder to pick up the Mediaset signal, thanks purely to aspects of Italian geography, were less affected than their peers. The result was that heavy Mediaset consumers ended up with poorer cognitive skills, and less of an orientation to civic life, as well as performing worse in maths and literacy tests.
Still, it’s crucial to grasp that this sort of “dumbing down” doesn’t happen because bad TV somehow injects stupidity into people’s heads. It’s about the opportunity cost: every hour you’re sitting in front of a rubbish cartoon is an hour you’re not reading, exploring the physical world, or watching educational programming. The same is true of video games, social media and so on. They don’t have to be bad to be bad; they just have to get in the way of your doing something better.
There are echoes here of the work of Neil Postman, the media theorist who argued that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as opposed to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, correctly foretold our future: it was our addiction to mindless pleasure that would doom us, not state coercion. Then again, this new study shows it’s not an either/or choice, since apparently mindless pleasure helps make you the kind of person who favours authoritarian leaders. It’s also a reminder that we shouldn’t dismiss explanations for social and political events just because they sound snobby. The fact that a theory reinforces your existing views doesn’t make it right; but it doesn’t make it wrong, either.