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Junk television promoted populist politics long before Fox News and Trump

Kids and old people were more likely to vote for a notorious Italian populist when they were fed a diet of entertainment television.

- July 16, 2019

In the 1980s, Mediaset, the commercial television network owned by soon-to-be Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, began expanding its coverage across Italy. In a new paper, Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti, and Andrea Tesei show that municipalities that had earlier access to the network — which, at the time, broadcast only movies and light entertainment — were much more likely to vote for Berlusconi’s party when he entered politics in 1994. This effect persists for five elections and is most pronounced among the heaviest TV watchers: the young and the elderly.

In a phone interview, Andrea Tesei explained why entertainment TV is linked to support for populism, how he and his co-authors pinned down causality and what Italian television was like in the 1980s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You find that the introduction of entertainment television in Italy in the 1980s made voters more likely to support Silvio Berlusconi’s populist party, Forza Italia. Can you tell me a little bit about ’80s Italian entertainment TV?

When Mediaset, which was Berlusconi’s network, entered the TV landscape in the 1980s, it was such a revolution that the famous Italian semiotician Umberto Eco called it “neo television,” or new television. It provided a completely different kind of programming. Sixty-three percent of overall broadcasting time was devoted to live shows, quiz shows, sports and the like. This compares with less than 25 percent on the state-owned TV corporation RAI. There was also a difference in quality. If you look at critics’ ratings of movies that were broadcast on RAI and Mediaset, the latter had substantially lower ratings.

The three of us grew up in the 1980s watching this TV. Cartoons were much more violent. There was much less informative content, much less educational content. Mediaset was portraying a lifestyle that was very different from the one shown on RAI. Many of the TV series back in Italy in the ’80s were directly imported from the United States, like “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” This was the introduction of the U.S. lifestyle in Italy.

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How did you establish the relationship between watching entertainment television and supporting Berlusconi?

To pin down the causal effect of exposure to television, we exploited random exposure to television signal. We then show, using survey data, that individuals living in municipalities with better signal voted more for Berlusconi — and that the effect was strongest for the very old and the young, who were spending the most time watching television.

Pinning down causality is obviously difficult here. How do you know that entertainment television wasn’t being rolled out in places where people were already more likely to back populist candidates?

We spent a great deal of time trying to control for confounding factors by restricting variation within local labor-market areas and electoral-district areas. What we did was to compare two typically very small municipalities that were very similar in all observable ways. Of course, you don’t want to compare a municipality in Piedmont, in the north of Italy, with one in Sicily, in the south, because they are very different in many respects. So what we did was compare two municipalities in the same province, or in an even smaller area. In some cases, we even compared neighboring municipalities, which had indistinguishable populations and geographic characteristics, but because of the placement of an antenna, one was more likely to receive Mediaset’s signal than the other. And the inhabitants of that municipality, 15 years later, were more likely to vote for Berlusconi.

How does watching “light entertainment” change a person’s political behavior?

We test three hypotheses. The first is that entertainment consumption may have made people less civically engaged or civically minded. Robert Putnam, for example, has famously argued that television has eroded social capital in the United States. Less socially engaged individuals may be more attracted to political parties that have a strong personalistic element than to those that require more active participation from their members.

Second, we know from the medical and psychological literature that television negatively affects children’s cognitive ability. We explore whether this translates into politics — whether less sophisticated voters are more attracted to simpler political movements. We show that Berlusconi — and, later, interestingly, Beppe Grillo, of the Five Star Movement — were markedly different from their political peers in terms of how simply their political message could be understood.

Third, there may be a recognition effect, whereby voters who enjoyed Mediaset were more likely to know Berlusconi when he entered politics or to have a better opinion of him. But the data does not bear this out, so we find that the first two hypotheses are the most likely.

What made Berlusconi’s communication style more accessible than that of other politicians?

Berlusconi spoke a very different language from other politicians. We use two metrics to show this. First, we coded party manifestos using the Flesch-Kinkaid Index of readability — the shorter the sentences and words, on average, the easier the message is to understand. And Forza Italia manifestos are much easier to understand under this metric.

Second, we took all political appearances of Berlusconi and other politicians in a very famous Italian political show, and we calculated what percentage of words used were defined as commonly used words — there is an index for that. On this dimension as well, Berlusconi speaks a much simpler language than other politicians, who use more obscure political jargon. Interestingly, the only politician who stands up to Berlusconi on this score is Beppe Grillo in 2013, when he enters politics. And the residents of municipalities that were exposed to Mediaset earlier were also more likely to vote for Grillo’s party, the populist Five Star Movement.

You show that exposure to entertainment TV most affected the voting behavior of the very young and the very old. Were they affected in the same way?

For the elderly, the effect was happening through habit formation. They were hooked by the kind of television that Berlusconi showed — the salacious shows and sports. They were then much more likely to watch news shows on Mediaset when those shows were introduced universally in the ’90s. And we know that news on Mediaset was slanted toward Berlusconi.

Unlike the elderly, kids were not more likely to watch news on Mediaset later on — there was no habit formation. What was happening was that kids who were introduced to Mediaset in the 1980s were much more likely to grow up socially and civically disengaged, and even more, they appear to be more cognitively shallow compared to their peers, who grew up without this entertainment diet. We were able to show that kids who grew up in Mediaset-exposed areas performed significantly worse on standardized exams taken in adulthood.

How transferable are your results to other countries? A lot has been written about the relationship between reality TV and the rise of Donald Trump, for example, and other experts have linked Fox News to increased support for the Republican Party.

The connection between Fox News and voting for Republicans has been established. The novelty of our study is that we look at the political effects of entertainment, which is super interesting because so much of people’s television diet is entertainment. It is, of course, very tempting to extrapolate our results and think about them in the context of the recent surge in populism in the United States and Europe, and indeed, the fact that our results apply not just to Berlusconi but also to the Five Star Movement suggests that there is perhaps a more general message. Less civically minded voters may be more vulnerable to populistic rhetoric.

Then again, the Italy of the 1980s was very different from the United States or U.K. of today, and this makes the extrapolation harder. The recent surge of populism happened in the aftermath of the economic financial crisis of 2008. The media landscape has changed dramatically, from television to mobile phones and social media, which has opened up a host of new questions about information overflow, fake news, and so on, so the environment is quite different. Still, with these caveats in mind, I think our results suggest that the cultural codes that were popularized by entertainment media can influence political preferences. The fact that the political and media landscapes have changed is what makes this area of study — media and politics — so thriving and entertaining.

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Nikita Lalwani was a staff editor at Foreign Affairs and now studies law at Yale.