The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans who watch Fox News are more likely to believe false theories about Jan. 6

Violent rioters loyal to President Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP)

What makes someone think that the 2020 election was stolen? Part of it, obviously, is that a former president of the United States has insisted it was for more than a year. Part of it, too, is that his claims are elevated by a galaxy of people and organizations eager to siphon off some of the attention that he generates. And part of it is that accepting or tolerating Donald Trump’s assertions about voter fraud are increasingly part of what it means to be a Republican in the United States.

In May 2021, I spoke with Rachel Blum, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, who described how issues become part of a partisan package.

“Ideology, and then parties as purveyors of ideology, serve this really important role as bundlers or packagers of issue positions,” Blum said. “And once somebody decides, either via one issue or via a candidate or whatnot, that the Republican Party is the party for them, they will then seek information that is from friendly sources, whoever they see that as, and they will be receptive to information that confirms these biases. They will also sample information that confirms these biases, and then will implicitly pick up on the rest of the packaging.”

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In other words, speaking specifically about this fraud question, if the party is saying that this happened, members of the party would be expected to look for confirmation of the idea. And many have clearly found it in the coverage provided by Fox News.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post released new polling data, conducted in partnership with the University of Maryland, that looks at how Americans view the violence that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of last year. What we found was a deep partisan split on the causes of the riot, on culpability and on fraud, the justification used by many of the rioters. But we also asked respondents where they got their news, allowing us to see how Republicans — generally receptive to Trump’s false framing of the 2020 election results — might differ in both news sourcing and in beliefs.

Consider, for example, the question of how those who entered the building on that day behaved. Most Americans describe the rioters as “mostly violent,” though Republicans are more likely to say that they were “mostly peaceful.” If we break out those Republicans into those who do or don’t get their news from either Fox News or Fox’s website, we see a significant difference: Fox News Republicans are 15 points more likely to say the rioters were “mostly peaceful” and non-Fox News Republicans 16 points more likely to say they were “mostly violent.”

One of the ways Trump’s allies have sought to redirect concern over the violence that day has been to insist that those detained for their roles have been treated unfairly by the justice system. Here, too, our poll found a significant difference: Fox News-consuming Republicans were 15 points more likely to say that the legal punishments faced by accused rioters have been too harsh.

We will note an important caveat here: This correlation doesn’t prove that Fox News viewership caused these Republicans to hold this position. It may be the case that Republicans who choose not to watch Fox News are also ones less likely to adhere to the sorts of rhetoric that Trump and his allies promote. But it is also the case that, particularly on this issue, Fox News has actively promoted the idea more commonly held by Fox News viewers. Host Tucker Carlson, for example, has repeatedly hosted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to make claims about how those accused of participating in the riot are being unfairly treated.

As we reported Monday morning, most Republicans say that Trump bears little to no blame for what happened at the Capitol that day. Fox News Republicans are 18 points more likely than non-Fox Republicans to say that Trump bears no blame at all.

Fox News Republicans are also much more likely to say that President Biden’s election was illegitimate — which it wasn’t — than are Republicans who don’t watch Fox News. There’s a gap of more than 20 points between the views expressed by those two groups.

Notice that even Republicans who don’t use Fox as a news source are about split on this question, so it’s not as though it’s a group that generally aligns with the overall national sentiment on the question. But even in this pool of people that’s generally more receptive to false assertions about Biden’s legitimacy, they’re much less conspiratorial than the Republicans for whom Fox News is a news source.

And, getting back to the original point: That also holds true for assertions about there being evidence of fraud in the 2020 election.

Again, there is no solid evidence of significant fraud in that election. Yet two-thirds of Republicans who use Fox News as a source of information think there was — a bit of data that at the very least would prove that Fox does a poor job of informing its audience, if we could be confident that Fox spent a lot of energy trying to disprove these rumors, which it doesn’t.

As a corollary, Fox News Republicans are also less confident than Republicans overall and than non-Fox-watching Republicans to think that votes in this year’s midterm elections will be counted accurately.

It is again important to differentiate between Fox News Republicans who accept these false claims because they watch Fox News and those who accept the false claims and watch Fox News.

But if my job were to accurately inform the public (which it is) and members of my audience repeatedly demonstrated a disproportionate acceptance of clearly false theories and assertions, I might not take much comfort in the fact that they may simply be seeing my outlet as one worth relying on for information, even if I’m not why they believe those false theories in the first place.

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