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A new in-depth report found that the advent of entertainment TV in Italy made its viewers more likely to vote for Berlusconi and other populists. These findings could be applied to other countries, the study says.
Access to low-quality entertainment television makes people less civic-minded, less "cognitively sophisticated" and more likely to vote for populists, a new study published in the July edition of the American Economic Journal has found.
Using the extensive data available about the introduction and use of private TV broadcasters in different parts of Italy, researchers from Spain, Italy and the UK have shown that the areas of the country that were exposed to Silvio Berlusconi's entertainment channels earlier were much more likely to vote for the populist leader the first time he ran for office in 1994.
Indeed, by "by priming particular cultural models, light entertainment shows, soap operas, and advertising" can have just as much as effect on behavior as politically biased TV news, the report noted.
Although support for Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party has waned, and his style of populism was more right-wing, the same demographics of society that overwhelmingly voted for him in the 1990s are now voting for the Five Star Movement (M5S). Although M5S has left-leaning roots, it "shares with Forza Italia a distinctively populist rhetoric," the study said.
Entertainment TV makes people 'cognitively and culturally shallower'
Private television channels were banned in Italy in 1976, and Berlusconi's Mediaset was one of the first companies to make use of loopholes that allowed private TV channels ostensibly operating at the local level to be spread nationally by means of syndication agreements.
The researchers found that in comparison to channels operated by public broadcaster RAI, which was news and education based, Mediaset channels showed almost no news until the 1990s and instead aired low-brow entertainment programming and films that were considered of a lower quality based on critical review data as well as parental guidelines. The availability and pervasiveness of Mediaset was then compared to voter data across Italy.
"Taken together, our findings support the view that exposure to entertainment television, particularly at a young age, can contribute to making individuals cognitively and culturally shallower, and ultimately more vulnerable to populist rhetoric," the report said, noting that this does not necessarily mean right-wing populism, but rather whatever side of the political spectrum the individuals were more often presented with.
Children and elderly most susceptible
The study also notes that age of exposure, either as very young children or as much older viewers, affected receptiveness to populist messaging as well as intelligence: "For individuals first exposed to Mediaset as children, we find that entertainment TV has a negative impact on cognitive abilities in adulthood…these individuals also exhibit significantly lower levels of civic engagement."
This data was measured by "standardized numeracy and literacy tests" as well as by "interest in politics and participation in voluntary associations."
The study concludes that its "findings offer the first systematic evidence that exposure to entertainment television influences voting behavior," and could likely be applied to cases outside Italy as well.