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Republicans Who Watch Fox News More Likely to Believe COVID-19 Falsehoods: New Poll

Lloyd Grove
Kevin Hagen

The novel coronavirus pandemic—which has already infected nearly half a million victims and claimed more than 16,000 lives in the United States alone—is proving to be significantly more lethal than the seasonal flu.

Yet 58 percent of self-identified Republicans who depend on Fox News, Breitbart, and other conservative media outlets for information about the public-health crisis erroneously believe that COVID-19 is “less deadly or as deadly as” influenza.

That’s according to the results of a new public-opinion survey released Thursday by the Knight Foundation and the Gallup polling organization.

In a conference call Thursday, the Knight Foundation’s chief program officer, Sam Gill, said the survey results suggest that “those who are Republican and lean Republican are a third more likely to believe that COVID is less deadly than the seasonal flu.”

Among the same group of Republicans—culled from a Gallup panel of 1,449 American adults who responded to the online survey boasting a plus-or-minus 5 percent margin of sampling error—a robust 69 percent say the news media in general is giving the outbreak too much attention.

Meanwhile, 98 percent of Fox and Breitbart-consuming Republicans believe that President Donald Trump is doing an “excellent” or “good” job fighting the pandemic—a view relentlessly promoted by the likes of Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and the Trump-loving denizens of Fox & Friends.

By stark contrast, a barely measurable 3 percent of Democratic viewers of MSNBC, CNN and other liberal outlets—and who responded to the survey conducted from March 17 through March 29—praise Trump’s handling of COVID-19.

Among that group, only 19 percent fault the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic, and only 25 percent believe the mistakenly optimistic assessment of COVID-19’s deadliness. (The survey’s designation of “liberal,” “conservative” or “neutral” media outlets is based on evaluations by the “media bias ratings” of AllSides.com and the Media Bias/Fact Check website.)

After winning the Nevada caucus During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump crowed, “I love the poorly educated.” Yet the Knight/Gallup survey shows that liberal media-consuming Democrats without college degrees seem far less likely than college-educated, Fox News-watching Republicans to believe the coronavirus/flu canard.

In the latter category, 45 percent of B.A.-boasting Republicans believe the falsehood that COVID-19 is less lethal or no more lethal than seasonal influenza. But only 22 percent of the liberal media-consuming, high school-educated Democrats are falling for that whopper.

Caveat emptor: The raw numbers of respondents are below 100 in the comparison between college Republicans and non-college Democrats, which increases “the chances that the difference between the two percentages is just noise,” Gallup senior research consultant Zacc Ritter cautioned. “We are slicing and dicing this data pretty intensely here.” 

But as for Republicans without college degrees, 61 percent—or a statistically more reliable 104 respondents—embrace the coronavirus canard.

It’s tempting to blame the above survey responses solely on certain media outlets’ spreading of misinformation. But the causes are much more nuanced, Ritter told The Daily Beast.

“Is it the media or the news-source outlets themselves that are driving that perception of partisan differences, or is it the partisanship itself?” Ritter said. “We were trying to distinguish between echo chambers and filter bubbles—for instance, people just stuck in a purely conservative world—from partisanship.”

Ritter elaborated: “What we found was something called partisan-motivated reasoning. That was the primary driver for knowledge about whether COVID-19 was more deadly than the seasonal flu. Partisan-motivated reasoning is the notion that you gravitate toward and believe the messages that confirm your prior beliefs and your partisan identity…

“Echo chambers are not a driver. It doesn’t matter if you only watched Fox or CNN. You tend to believe what your partisan identity tells you is more credible. A lot of this lands on the messenger. It might be Sean Hannity or Donald Trump. [If you’re a Republican], you gravitate toward those people more, whether or not you were exposed to CNN.”

Conversely, Ritter added, partisan Democrats who consume a diet of Fox News and other right-leaning outlets would tend to challenge and/or disbelieve much of what they are hearing and seeing.

The Knight Foundation’s Sam Gill, meanwhile, noted: “We also see very strong partisan differences in attitude about how the media is paying attention to the crisis. Republicans are much more likely to think the media is paying too much attention and far less likely than Democrats to think the media is paying just the right amount of attention to the COVID crisis.”

Gill added that Republicans are significantly less likely than Democrats to get their information from mainstream media outlets or governmental public-health authorities—a partisan outlook that potentially is creating a dangerous disparity in accepted knowledge and facts.

“You’re seeing intense tribalism,” Gill said. “They’re bringing their tribal preferences into their views of media. One of the key points of the debate is: Are we kind of losing a common set of facts?... It’s not that people are ideologically immune or more receptive to facts. It may be the case that ideology is having an impact on where you go for information. And some sources of information are more likely to give you facts or a consensus about facts than others at this time.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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