Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Does Biased News Have a ‘Time Bomb’ Effect?

• November 09, 2009 • 5:00 AM

A European study shows that, over time, even the most sophisticated readers can be manipulated.

There’s nobody more cynical about the media than your average European.

Only 12 percent of Europeans claim to trust the media, compared to 15 percent of North Americans, 29 percent of Pacific Asians and 48 percent of Africans, the BBC has found.

Yet new research out of the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that even the most hardened Europeans may succumb to media manipulation and change their political views if they are bombarded long enough with biased news.

Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer in European politics at the school, fed a steady diet of slanted newsletters about Europe and the European Union — either all good news or all bad — to 1,200 citizens of six countries over two years.

Over time, Bruter found, and without exception, the readers subconsciously adopted the bias to varying degrees and changed their view of the EU and of themselves as Europeans, a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they didn’t register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.

Bruter calls this the “time bomb” effect of one-sided news. His study paints a blunt picture of how cynicism, far from inoculating citizens to resist political persuasion, merely delays the impact.

“We know that an increasing proportion of citizens distrust the media and that some explicitly claim to discount bias in the news that they receive,” he wrote. “However, we show that despite this qualified reading strategy, the effect of news resounds over time.

Bruter did not study American media, but his research raises questions about the effects of long-term exposure to polarized television news on outlets such as the FOX and MSNBC networks — which are currently first and second respectively in cable news ratings. The Obama administration recently called FOX News Channel a political opponent and not a legitimate news organization.

The “time bomb” effect calls into question whether the cynicism of modern-day citizens actually makes them more vulnerable to the very journalistic sources they distrust and feel immune to, Bruter said.

Thus, British citizens, the most cynical of all, may be alert to the anti-EU slant of their media, yet the study suggests they can be nonetheless be manipulated to feel significantly less European than others, Bruter said.

The media, he said — and particularly, the tabloids — should stop brushing aside accusations of bias with assertions that “their audiences are mature and sophisticated and can take what they say with a pinch of salt.”

“By contrast, my findings suggest that even sophisticated audiences are indeed susceptible to manipulation,” he said. “As such, the big lesson for the media is that it does have a responsibility.”

Bruter became intrigued with the question of media and identity after the citizens of France and the Netherlands voted down a proposed constitution for the European Union in 2005. This setback, he said, made it imperative to figure out whether the media was influencing “why some citizens feel more European than others.”

Bruter designed a two-year experiment in which he sent biweekly newsletters containing biased news about Europe and the EU to up to 200 each in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Sweden. These countries represented both large and small, rich and poor, pro-European and “Euroskeptic” members of the EU.

Each four-page newsletter, compiled from daily and weekly European papers, included two pages of articles exclusively about Europe and the EU, either all positive or all negative.

Thus, for example, one group of participants would read about how European heads of state agreeing to jointly fight drug trafficking, Airbus overtaking Boeing as the world’s No. 1 airplane manufacturer, and the value of the euro going up, while another group would read about the value of the euro going down, Airbus losing a large order in China to Boeing, and heads of state failing to agree on how to fight organized crime from the former Eastern bloc.

In addition, the “good news” newsletters contained three photographs or drawings of pro-European symbols such as maps of Europe and photographs of the EU flag (a circle of yellow centered on a blue background), while the “bad news” newsletters contained placebo photographs of people and landscapes.

Before the first newsletter was mailed out, participants filled out a questionnaire designed to measure their civic, cultural and European identity. They answered such questions (in different languages) as, “In general, are you in favor or against the efforts being made to unify Europe?” “In general, would you consider yourself a citizen of Europe?” “Would you say that you feel closer to fellow Europeans than, say, to Chinese, Australian or American people?”

Also, participants were asked to describe their reaction if they saw someone burning a European flag, and their reaction if they saw someone burning the flag of their own country.

They received essentially the same questionnaire twice more — right after the newsletters stopped and six months after that.

The findings showed that biased news had virtually no effect on whether citizens felt more or less European or more or less in favor of the EU, directly after the two-year experiment ended. But six months after the last newsletter arrived, the results showed that they were unmistakably affected.

Consistent exposure to symbols of Europe and the EU — flags, maps and euro banknotes — worked immediately to make people feel more European, the study found. And six months after the experiment, participants who were regularly exposed to the symbols were increasingly aware of them in real life. In effect, they had been “primed” by the newsletters to notice them.

But the “time bomb” of biased news was more effective than the exposure to symbols in manipulating members of the “vastly cynical European public,” Bruter said.

“It shows that even the most ‘unbelievable’ propaganda may have an effect over time and that the most fallacious and baseless rumors, for instance, may shape opinion to an extent,” Bruter said.

Today, the European Union has grown to 27 member states, from the original six that first engaged in mutual economic cooperation in 1957. The Lisbon Treaty, a replacement for the failed 2005 European Constitution, is poised to go into effect this year: 26 of the 27 member countries have ratified it, including France and the Netherlands. The Czech Republic is the last holdout.

But regardless of what governments do, the question of why and how the citizens of different countries in Europe begin to feel less British or Danish or Portuguese, say, and more European at heart is still very much an open one. The media, Bruter said, can impede or encourage that feeling over time.

“The effect of news ultimately kicks in and so influences citizens’ European identity with remarkable efficiency in the long term,” he said.

“Time Bomb? The Dynamic Effect of News and Symbols on the Political Identity of European Citizens,” appeared earlier this year in the journal Comparative Political Studies.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 4:00 AM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.