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The unique role of Fox News in the misinformation universe

New York City advertisements feature Fox News personalities on March 13, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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You will probably not be surprised to learn that Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to believe false claims and conspiracy theories centered on the coronavirus vaccines and the pandemic broadly. You will also probably not be surprised to learn that people who trust information about the pandemic from conspiratorial far-right networks such as One America News and Newsmax are much more likely to embrace conspiracy theories than people who watch network news, according to new polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

But you may be surprised to learn that people who say they trust coronavirus information from Fox News were as likely to embrace those false theories as were those who trusted One America News.

It doesn’t take very long to figure out the throughline. Republicans broadly are more likely to accept these conspiracy theories. The graph above, in other words, largely captures the same partisan divide that’s reflected in the first sentence of this article.

That underplays what’s happening in KFF’s polling. Fox News is trusted for information on the pandemic nearly as much as outlets like NPR and MSNBC, but those who trust it embrace conspiracy theories at the level of someone who watches OAN or Newsmax. In other words, it sits at a unique nexus of having both broad trust and an audience that widely believes false claims.

KFF asked about eight different conspiracies, not all of which were equally embraced by those who trust Fox News’s coverage. The ones on which the Fox News-trustors differed most from the overall center on conspiracies about the number of covid-19 deaths being overstated and, unsurprisingly, on the effectiveness of the anti-parasite drug ivermectin as a covid-19 treatment.

Fox News helped amplify the idea that ivermectin was an effective treatment earlier this year, contributing to an ensuing backlash that spurred its cable news competitors CNN and MSNBC to both dive into the subject in an effort to debunk that idea (and to deride those who spread it). Until July, only Fox News had mentioned ivermectin with any regularity; since then, its competitors have focused on it more. Half of those who told KFF they trusted each of the three networks said they hadn’t heard about ivermectin.

Of those who had heard about ivermectin and trusted CNN’s or MSNBC’s coverage, two-thirds knew the claim was false. Of those who’d heard about it and trusted Fox News’s coverage, half said they believed that ivermectin was an effective treatment.

Again, some of this is a function of Republicans who believe conspiracy theories self-selecting as Fox News viewers. But the same gap overlaps with belief in the false claim that the election was stolen, as recent PRRI polling indicated. In that polling, Republicans who most trusted far-right networks such as Newsmax and OAN almost universally believed that the election was stolen, while fewer than half of Republicans who most trusted mainstream news sources said the same. Among Republicans who most trusted Fox, views were much closer to the OAN/Newsmax group.

Again: Self-selection is at play here. But this is the essential question for Fox News in the Trump era. Will it push back against false claims broadly and risk upsetting its audience, or will it echo those claims? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the network saw how an embrace of reality might play out, with furious supporters of President Donald Trump loudly decamping to Newsmax. That probably didn’t stick, but it sent a message.

The result is that Fox News is to some extent holding its position on the grid shown above by not broadly challenging dishonest claims about the pandemic. While the fact that those who trust its coverage are more likely to believe conspiracy theories is probably not primarily about picking up the conspiracy theories from the network (ivermectin being a key exception), it is the case that Fox News is not interested in turning those viewers away by challenging their beliefs. It’s not a coincidence that distrust of government and embrace of ivermectin — subjects that have directly been part of the network’s coverage — are the places where those who trust Fox differ most from the country overall.

Those willing to give Fox the benefit of the doubt here might be reminded that it recently produced and aired a series aimed at casting the attack of Jan. 6 as a false-flag by the government. Part of what’s happening is self-selection. Part of it, too, is retaining those who selected Fox News by whatever means the network can.