Effects of Ideological Media Persuasion

It might seem like if there are a lot of media outlets to choose from, as is the case in the U.S., there will only be such ideological content in the media as viewers (or listeners or readers, but I’ll call them viewers) will want. In other words, it might seem like there won’t be any “persuasion” in the sense of viewers being talked into accepting the ideology of media outlet owners. But it’s not obvious that this is true, and even if it were true it’s not obvious that it is a good thing for viewers get the ideological media content that they “want.” Some reasons are as follows.

1. Viewers will get ideological content that they don’t want (i.e., will get persuasion) if: (i) outlets have ideological content, but also have differentiated non-ideological content that is sufficiently attractive; or (ii) the ideology is effective but is subtle enough that the viewers don’t know they’re getting it.

2. It is precisely when the ideological viewing is consciously choosen that viewers are most likely to forget that they are still being persuaded. Some folks may have started listening to Rush because it was fun to hear him knock the Dems around when they were in power, without realizing that things that were said then put many of them in a frame of mind that led them to be catastrophically wrong about things that were actually important a few years later.

3. There can be meaningful persuasion even when viewers are in no way mistaken about what happens when they expose themselves to ideological media. One of the functions of ideological media is to consciously reinforce existing ideologies. People want to hear a compelling, authoritative voice tell them that they are right. The dittoheads who listen to Rush tune in not just because it’s fun to hear what they already believe to be true, but also for validation that their worldview is correct and respectable. But this is still just another form of persuasion, no less so because it was consciously chosen.

4. One function of ideological media programs is to organize and mobilize. Ideological programming will advance an ideological agenda even if it has no direct persuasive effect at all if it helps group members to co-ordinate on which talking points to use on potential converts, or to know which Congressman to write an angry letter to, and so on.

5. The persuasion that people consciously choose is typically attached to an identity that they adopt for themselves. I identify as a conservative, so I listen to Rush, because he is the voice of the conservatives. But the actual content of what it means to be a conservative is a pretty fluid thing. So whoever gets to define what it means to be a conservative in fact has a lot of persuasive power after all. One of the benefits of being a media owner is being in a position to be that person.

Of course, none of this is necessarily to knock ideological persuasion. At least some of it is almost certainly a good thing. The point is just that ideological media persuasion is neither impossible not obviously benign, even in a free country with lots of media diversity.

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  • “the ideology is effective but is subtle enough that the viewers don’t know they’re getting it.”

    Such as when that ideological persuasion is passed off as being unbiased. For example, when it is presented as a news story in the New York Times, CBS News, or Fox News.

  • A clear test of bias is whether you disapprove of media choices that reinforce the ideology of your opponents, while you approve of media choices that reinforce your own ideology. You shouldn’t be able to have this both ways.

  • Doug S.

    But my ideology is correct, and theirs is wrong!

  • David J. Balan

    Robin and Doug S.,

    The point of the post was only to show that ideological persuasion is both possible and not *necessarily* good. Whether it is in fact good or bad does depend on the character of the persuasion. It would be biased to pretend that persuasion is not persuasion just because you like it, and of course there is a real problem in getting people to agree what good persuasion is, but I don’t see how discriminating between different kinds of persuasion automatically makes one guilty of bias.

  • David, I agree that it can be unbiased to approve of some kinds of persuasion and disapprove of others.

  • Marc Resnick

    I recommend reading Sunstein’s Infotopia if you haven’t already. He cites several studies showing that the tendency of groups that start out agreeing on the ideology (i.e. Rush and his listeners) become more extreme in their views as a result of their discussion. If we are all able to access media that we agree with (which is what most of do when possible), it just creates more polarized groups, leading to a more polarized political environment. So the growth of ideological sources (TV, blogs, talk radio, etc.) can lead to some bad consequences, even if you like the ideologies of the groups themselves.

    For anyone who is also a history buff, this is the opposite of what Jefferson and Madison had in mind when they wrote the Constitution.