Is light entertainment dumbing us down? It's an old debate, but a new study suggests that exposure to unchallenging TV reduced Italians' thinking capacity and made them more likely to vote for politicians offering simplistic solutions. The authors' attempt to draw a link to Trump's election is unsurprising, but debatable.
Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy three times between 1994 and 2011, largely through establishing a television network, Mediaset, that made him huge amounts of money and acted as a propaganda machine during his political career. A billionaire with a tame media outlet starts with a huge political advantage, but was there more to it than that? Did the diet of soap operas and game shows make viewers more likely to support a candidate who offered simple solutions to complex problems and wooed the electorate with demonstrably false claims?
Dr Andrea Tesei of Queen Mary University of London thought there was a way to find out, and the findings might have implications beyond Italy.
Mediaset did not become accessible to all Italians simultaneously. Some regions could see it years before others. The rollout was based not on Berlusconi identifying the areas most likely to be receptive to its programming of sport, cartoons, and “light entertainment”, but on where transmitters were for sale, and whether they were obstructed by mountains. Consequently, Tesei reasoned, the rollout created a natural experiment, allowing a comparison between the timing of Mediaset's arrival and voting patterns years later.
Areas that Mediaset was available in in 1985 recorded a 1 percent higher vote for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party over five elections held up to two decades later, Tesei reports in a yet to be peer reviewed discussion paper. The difference was 3 percent among people who didn't finish high school, and concentrated among age groups that watch the most TV.
The Forza Italia vote might be attributed to people who had spent years enjoying Berlusconi's productions feeling favorable to him. However, Tesei observed the residents of Mediaset's early catchments also performed worse on cognitive tests (by 5 percent among prime age groups). Interest in politics, and even involvement in voluntary groups, also showed strong correlations. Other “populist” politicians have subsequently made these areas strongholds.
"Our results suggest that individuals exposed to entertainment TV as children are less cognitively sophisticated and less socio-politically engaged as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi's populist rhetoric,” Tesei said in a statement.
The fame The Apprentice generated certainly helped Trump's campaign. Nevertheless, with so many other potential variables, Tesei may be jumping the gun in claiming: “Our results suggest that entertainment content can influence political attitudes, creating a fertile ground for the spread of populist messages.... The results are timely as the United States adjusts to the Presidency of Donald Trump."