On his eponymous program Tuesday night, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly in his “Talking Points Memo” abhorred the ignorance of Americans vis-a-vis foreign affairs. To support his contentions about out-of-touch citizens, O’Reilly dispatched colleague Jesse Watters to a gathering spot in New York to interview people about what’s happening in the Middle East. Predictability ensued, as Watters appeared to have little difficulty finding people with no idea whatsoever about the ongoing conflicts.
After running the idiot reel, O’Reilly proclaimed, “In this age of social media, Americans becoming more apathetic, concerned primarily with their wallets and personal lives. ‘Talking Points’ believes many Americans simply don’t understand how weakness is putting all of us in danger, physical danger.”
The king of cable news has a conflicted relationship with the Internet. On the one hand, he boasted about his own show’s Internet redistribution in a rebuttal to NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who early this year dissed the audience of cable news. Said O’Reilly: “When was the last time you saw a discussion about a ‘Nightly News’ story on the Net? Here on ‘The Factor,’ we are the center of discussion on the Internet nearly every night.” And on the other hand, O’Reilly has slighted the Internet, arguing that it doesn’t provide “in-depth reporting or analysis.”
It’s in the spirit of that latter remark that O’Reilly levels a connection between social media use and American apathy. That connection is not a matter of opinion or analysis, either: There are studies that have looked at the phenomenon that O’Reilly tilts at. Take a key paragraph from this 2009 study by the Pew Research Internet Project on the “Current State of Civic Engagement in America“:
Those who use blogs or social networking sites politically are much more likely to be invested in other forms of civic and political activism. Compared to those who go online but do not post political or social content or to those who do not go online in the first place, members of this group are much more likely to take part in other civic activities such as joining a political or civic group, contacting a government official or expressing themselves in the media. Only when it comes to making a contribution to a place of worship are the differences among these groups quite minimal.
Now try this chart from the same study:
Lookie there. Washington Post polling analyst Scott Clement delivers the takeaway: “The first row in the chart below shows that even Internet users who are not active politically are more likely to take part in offline civic or political activities (27 percent do) than non-Internet users (14 percent). ”
In 2013, Pew returned to the topic of social media and political participation. Among the group’s findings: “Discussions of political or social issues on social networking sites can spur users to get more involved or learn more about those issues. These actions can be encouraged by discussions among friends, as well as from posts made by organizations or public figures.” Not exactly the picture of apathy painted by O’Reilly.