The extent of misperceptions of political events and developments is assumed to be largely determined by the rate of press freedom characterising each country (Reporters sans frontiers (RSF) 2018). Following that line of argument, only about one third of all countries worldwide would turn out to be in a good (Scandinavia, Germany) or satisfactory (the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia) situation (see Appendix). Recent research on misperceptions suggests that press freedom may be a necessary but not necessarily a sufficient condition of measurement. More decisive than press freedom are two additional factors: on one hand, deep-rooted ideological inclinations and worldviews formed during primary (family) and subsequent (school) phases of socialisation; and on the other hand, the structure of media ownership. In what follows, we present some recent evidence on how the ownership of the media (state/public/private) is influencing misperceptions. We argue that state-controlled and private media distort public opinion more than media under democratic forms of public control.
Public misperceptions of politics
There is much debate about whether citizens are sufficiently knowledgeable to meaningfully participate in politics. While knowledge hinges on the quality and the amount of information, the sources, the clout, and the trustworthiness of information are themselves a highly controversial matter. There is indeed an important distinction between being uninformed and being misinformed (see Kuklinski and Quirk, 2000, p. 792). We subscribe to the claim made by Flynn, Nyhan, and Reifler (2017), that “While standards of democratic competence vary, empirical research in public opinion yields a relatively simple answer to the question of how much people typically know about politics: not very much. However, the meaning and significance of citizens’ inability to provide correct answers to factual survey questions can vary dramatically”. Among the most important distinctions concerning the relationship between knowledge and the ability to come up with reliable answers in surveys is the difference between being uninformed and being misinformed. Public ignorance about politics is one thing; factual beliefs that are either false or contradict the best available evidence are quite another. Such misperceptions can distort people’s opinions about some of the most essential issues in politics and other fields.
Misperceptions may originate internally because of cognitive biases and they may be demonstrably false, unsubstantiated, or otherwise unsupported by evidence. As many have argued, the most important external factor, however, has been the media. For instance, analysing a nationally representative online survey, Cacciatore, Yeo, Scheufele, and Xenos (2014) found that one in five Americans still believe President Barack Obama to be a Muslim: “Although race, political ideology, and ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian status were the primary drivers of misperceptions about Obama’s faith, media use had a more crucial role” in this (Ibid.).
There is a large pool of comparative data on misperceptions across countries. For instance, Flynn et al. (2017) discuss estimates of foreign-born populations across countries in Western Europe and find that Europeans greatly overestimate the number of foreign-born residents in their countries. The respective percentages of actual foreign-born and perceived foreign-born residents are 10 percent and 14 percent in Denmark and 9 percent and 30 percent in Italy.
The 2017 Ipsos Mori Index of Ignorance (Ipsos, 2017) is based on a survey covering 40 countries where participants were asked several questions about their society, including their country’s population, levels of healthcare spending, home ownership rates, and the proportion of their country’s population made up of Muslims. Even if only considering the last of these questions, the results are embarrassing. As an average across the surveyed countries, respondents thought 16 percent of the population was Muslim, whereas the correct average is only 3 percent. The unemployment rate was also overestimated by a factor of three. The average guess was 30 percent, in contrast to the actual rate of 9 percent. In the general index of ignorance produced by Ipsos MORI, Italy, the US, and South Korea lead the ranking as the most ignorant countries of those surveyed, while Sweden, Germany, and Japan feature among the least ignorant.
We are interested though not in ignorance per se, but in misperceptions concerning the sensitive issues of domestic and world politics. These misperceptions can be caused by general and genuine ignorance, by stereotypes obtained during primary socialisation, by biased school and university education, or by media bias and other factors such as the dissemination of fake news by prominent elite figures. As argued by Flynn et al. (2017, p. 29) “little is known […] about how elites exploit misinformation for strategic purposes or what effects misleading media coverage has on public opinion”. In what follows, we wish to focus precisely on influences responsible for creating misperceptions of all sorts.
The role of the media
The role of the media in the origins of misperceptions can have serious effects on international politics and conflict situations. Certain cognitive mechanisms and pernicious myths “foster ethnic and nationalist stereotypes and negative or false images about others or create false assumptions and beliefs about the nature of international politics, the causes of war and peace, and one’s own and others’ national interests” (Mendeloff, 2001). They may cause significant national misperceptions that lead to conflictual policies. A prominent example is the first Iraq war. As Kull et al. (2004) have found in a regression analysis, “the presence of misperceptions was the most powerful factor predicting support for the war (…)”. It appeared “that it would have been significantly more difficult for the President to elicit and maintain support for the decision to go to war if the public had not held such misperceptions.” (Kull et al., 2004). Rather than challenging the sources of misperceptions and mitigating their negative effects, the media has not been very helpful in this respect. “The fact that viewers of some media outlets had far lower levels of misperceptions than did others (…) suggests that not all were making the maximal effort to counter the potential for misperception” (Ibid.).
As noted by Flynn et al. (2017), media coverage of events shapes the flow of false claims to the public both directly through its coverage, and indirectly via its influence on elite behaviour. Recent decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number and type of news programmes available to media. Prior (2007) has been among the first to draw attention to how the expansion of media choice has exacerbated inequalities in political knowledge. Lewendusky (2013) and Jamieson and Capella (2010) have underlined the fact that partisan media programmes on cable television often feature false and/or exaggerated claims about political opponents.
In a period characterised by an ever-growing amount of fake news and biased information, it can be taken for granted that “in many situations the news media have been persuaded, manipulated, or even coerced to follow political (or military) views on international affairs. Disinformation campaigns, financial incentives, subtle threats, or retaliation may combine with consensual political outlooks among journalists and politicians in the construction of preferred interpretations of the current political situation in the world” (Van Dijk, 1995).
Overall, however, scholars know little about the extent to which the media actually increases misperceptions among consumers, many of whom are highly ideological anyway and may already be caught in cages of misperception. More experimental research is needed to determine whether certain types of media and ownership structure increase the likelihood of misperceptions among consumers.
Forms of media ownership
While there can be no doubt about the potential impact of pernicious information on the emergence of popular misperceptions, that influence is likely to be different relative to the kind of control, ownership, and quality of media. The main distinction here is between privately owned and public media. In countries where the bulk of media outlets is controlled by private entities, owners are typically families, media enterprises, private holdings, or employees. Private media normally operates on a for-profit basis.
It is extremely difficult to alter stereotypes in public consciousness. Some have even argued that attempts to correct misperceptions may turn out to be counter-productive. Results from Nyhan and Reifler (2010, p. 303) indicate that correcting measures frequently fail to reduce the volume of misperceptions among targeted ideological groups and, in many instances, even “lead to a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”
One study (Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2010) argues that press bias is explained by electoral preferences rather than the political orientation of a newspaper owner. In traditionally Republican constituencies, for example, newspapers hold a Republican orientation because readers prefer to find confirmation (rather than refutation) of their views, while press earnings (advertising revenues) depend on circulation. This creates a vicious circle: for instance, just looking at conservative voters, it turns out that they like information that confirms their views; media concerned with larger circulation are eager to provide this information; and voters are even more affirmed in their conservative views.
Public media are more difficult to classify. A distinction must be made between public service media on one hand and state and government media on the other hand. Public service media typically use public money to broadcast in the interests of the public as a whole. They are often established by law, but they are non-partisan and do not support any specific party, including the incumbent ruling party. Public service media are not-for-profit and free from political influence and pressures from commercial forces. According to UNESCO, “when guaranteed with pluralism, programming diversity, editorial independence, appropriate funding, accountability and transparency, public service broadcasting can serve as a cornerstone of democracy”. Typical examples are the British BBC or German TV broadcasting outlets linked to ARD and ZDF. In contrast, state and government media lean on state authorities or on the government of the day. They are financed by public money, but this is controlled by state authorities. They may either perform a public service function or be a propaganda instrument of the state. State and government media are also generally not-for-profit. In some cases, a distinction should additionally be made between state and political party ownership.
Table 1: Shares of privately owned and publicly owned media in % (only TV)
Source: Djankov et.al. 2003 (0.4 percent of TV outlets in the Americas are employee-owned or other)
In a comprehensive study on media ownership structures, Djankov et al. (2003) scrutinised a total of 97 countries in terms of publicly owned media and private media structures (see Table 1; for full data see Appendix). Concerning the first of these categories, the authors do not distinguish between public service media and state and government-controlled media, which would actually be necessary in order to find out whether or not information is biased in favour of governments (state and government media) or is relatively independent (public service media).
Nevertheless, the authors’ results are illuminating. As shown by Table 1, it appears that there is a wide variety in ownership structures across the world. Figures range between 94% (Middle East/North Africa) and 11% (the Americas) for public media and between 85% (the Americas) and 0.6% (Middle East/ North Africa) for privately-owned media.
In general, “countries that are poorer, more autocratic, with lower levels of primary school enrolment, and with higher levels of state intervention in the economy also have greater state ownership of the media” (Ibid.). These countries also have lower levels of press freedom, fewer political rights for citizens, lower levels of good governance, less developed capital markets, and inferior health conditions.
The impact of media ownership structures on the degree of misperceptions
Should the authors have included a further distinction, namely that between public service and state-controlled media, this verdict would likely need modification since countries belonging to the first category, such as the UK, Germany, Austria and many others, are clearly neither poor nor void of political rights but still exhibit a high share of public ownership. Overall, however, the results above suggest that media ownership is likely to have a substantial impact on the degree of political misperceptions held by consumers and citizens.
In order to study this in more detail, we advocate constructing a more fine-tuned list of media ownership able to take account of the differences between public-service media on one hand and state-controlled media outlets on the other. The following seems advisable:
Countries where TV ownership is highly state controlled (>50%) and where press ownership is very highly state controlled (close to 100%) are classified as government controlled. Countries where TV ownership is relatively low in terms of state control (<50%) and press ownership is equally low in terms of state control (<50%) are classified as controlled by and accountable to the public. All other countries fall into the category of privately-owned media.
The following preliminary hypotheses appear reasonable:
H1: It is the structure of media ownership which mainly determines the variance in misperceptions.
H2: It is a combination of media ownership and level/type of education which determines the variance.
H3: The frequency of misperception is highest in state and government-dominated media countries, average in private media dominated countries, and lowest in public service media dominated countries.
H4: It is the political orientation of the residents that determines the level of misperceptions and their preferences for specific media outlets.
If media create certain stereotypes, which are then reinforced by public support for media of certain orientations, then this appears to be a vicious circle. That circle could be broken either by reforms from above banning big business involvement in the media and the political process. Certain European countries – specifically the Scandinavian countries, with their public funding of political parties and the media – have come closer to this system than others. Or the circle could be broken by revolutions occurring when the gap between the stereotypes in public consciousness (e.g., people’s belief in their own opportunities for enrichment) and the reality (e.g., widespread impoverishment) reaches a critical level.
Table 2: The share of TV media controlled by the state and the degree of misperceptions in residents’ views on the percentage of migrants and the percentage of Muslims in the total population
Source: Djankov et al. (2003).
Table 2 shows the degree of misperceptions in residents’ views on the percentage of migrants and the percentage of Muslims in the total population alongside media ownership structures. Misperceptions are defined as the difference between the share of Muslim/immigrant population according to the respondents’ answers and the actual share.
Figure 1: The share of TV media controlled by the state and the degree of misperceptions in residents’ views on the percentage of migrants and percentage of Muslims in total population
Source: Authors’ figure based on data by Djankov et al. (2003).
Figure 1 above exhibits the relationship between the share of TV media run by state authorities and misperceptions regarding the percentage of Muslim immigrants per country. The relationship, most likely, is non-linear, if any, but there are too few points to come up with reliable conclusions.
Figure 2: Market share of state TV stations and the percentage of respondents accepting the idea of evolution
Source: Authors’ figure based on data by Miller et al. (2006); Djankov et al. (2003).
Figure 2 represents the ratio between state-run TV outlets and the predominance of creationist versus evolutionary convictions. It turns out that the share of respondents holding evolutionist views increases as state ownership of the TV stations goes up from 0% to 50% and then declines as it continues to increase from 50% to 100%. One possible interpretation of the result is here is that an optimal combination of private and state media (half and half) ensures the lowest degree of misperceptions.
It may also be possible to classify newspapers and TV channels into left and right and ask the question as to where people get their news. Following that procedure, some specific media outlets would likely be responsible for the creation of more misperceptions than others. One example is the following survey (see Table 3) which asked three questions about the second Gulf War of 2003: on weapons of mass destruction found (WMD); on Al-Qaeda links; and on support for the Gulf War in the world. It turned out that 45% of FOX news viewers had misperceptions with respect to these questions, compared to 11% of NPR and PBS listeners/viewers.
Table 3: Average of three misperception rates among viewers and listeners: WMD found; Evidence of Al-Qaeda link; and world majority support for the war (percentages)
Source: Kull et al. (2004).
Up to this point, we have just outlined the current status, so to speak, of research on uninformed and on misinformed citizens, and of course, on the possible joint causes of political misperceptions. In what follows, we advance a couple of suggestions for how this latter relationship may be made subject of more detailed research in the future. Our suggestions of course are very preliminary at this point, but we hope to raise interest among fellow researchers prepared to join us in our efforts
Apart from the standard questions asked in surveys such as the World Values Survey (Inglehart et al., 2014) on age, gender, income level, education, and political orientation, the following additional questions could be inserted with a view to identifying levels of ignorance, ideological bias, and political misperceptions:
General knowledge and misperceptions:
- Do you believe that the human being was created by God, as a result of the evolution of the animal world, or as a result of both God’s creation and evolution?
- The sun rotates around the Earth.
Misperceptions on history and politics:
- The average income of citizens in my country is higher/equal/lower than the average income of EU citizens.
- More than one-third/half/two- thirds of the tax revenues collected by my country’s authorities goes to military expenditures.
- The tax rate in my country far exceeds the rates of most other European countries.
- The share of foreign-born citizens of my country is clearly beyond 20/30/40 percent.
- More than 30/50/70 percent of immigrants seeking asylum in my country are of Muslim origin.
- The crime rate in my country has clearly increased substantially since the first major wave of immigration around the turn of the millennium. In any case, the murder rate in my country is the highest it’s been in 45 years.
- Climate change is a natural phenomenon that has always been with us. It has no man-made causes.
- The financial EU contributions made by my country are far higher than what we get out of it in terms of subsidies and support for less developed regions, sectors, and portions of the population.
- In my country, the share of people with a university degree is at about 30/50/70 percent.
- Religion was prohibited in the Soviet Union and churches were closed.
- The Russian defence budget is higher than that of the US.
- Under Putin, Russian living standards substantially declined compared with the period of Yeltsin.
- In the Second World War, Stalin and Hitler were allied and fought against a large Western coalition including the UK and the US.
- Life expectancy in communist Cuba did not increase after Fidel Castro took power in 1959
Distinguishing between lack of knowledge and misperception
As mentioned above, answers clearly deviating from common sense and/or acquired knowledge do not necessarily reflect a misperception by default. Such answers may simply reflect a lack of knowledge. There is a straightforward method that helps to distinguish between the two. It rests on what is called the Certainty of Response Index (CRI) originally developed for measuring knowledge performance in high-school class tests. The CRI is frequently used in the social sciences, particularly in surveys, where respondents are requested to provide the degree of certainty they have in their own ability to select and utilise well-established knowledge, concepts, or laws to arrive at the answer (see Hasan et al., 1999). The procedure is usually based on some scale such as, for instance, a six-point scale (0-5) in which 0 implies no knowledge (total guess) of methods or laws required for answering a particular question while 5 indicates complete confidence in the knowledge of the principles and laws required to arrive at the selected answer. When students are asked to provide a CRI along with each answer, we are in effect requesting them to provide their own assessment of certainty in their selection of the laws and methods utilised to get the answer.
Irrespective of whether the answer was correct or not, a low CRI value indicates guessing, which, in turn, implies a lack of knowledge. If the CRI is high (CRI of 3–5), then respondents have a high degree of conﬁdence in their choice of the laws and methods used to arrive at the answer. In this situation (CRI of 3–5), if the student arrived at the correct answer, it would indicate that the high degree of certainty was justiﬁed. However, if the answer was incorrect, the high level of certainty would indicate a misplaced conﬁdence in their knowledge of the subject matter. This misplaced certainty in the applicability of certain laws and methods to a speciﬁc question is an indicator of misconceptions. Although conducting research in a completely different context, this is also confirmed by Kuklinski and his colleagues (2000) who found that “the least informed people expressed the highest confidence in their answers” (see Nyhan and Reifler, 2010, p. 305). In any case, the requested CRI, when used in conjunction with the answer to a question, enables the researcher to differentiate between a lack of knowledge and a misconception.
Political misperceptions are believed to result from either deeply-rooted ideological inclinations or from low levels of press freedom. While we do not generally question these hypotheses, our claim is that such misperceptions are more than anything else triggered by factors related to the share of private versus public media outlets. Although not the case to the same extent everywhere, private ownership tends to furnish the distribution of fake news and, hence, of deliberate attempts by powerful figures to influence public opinion. Public ownership, at least when under the control of democratic institutions, as opposed to direct government control, tends to lessen the emergence and diffusion of misperceptions. These hypotheses should be tested in more detail by way of some large-scale international comparison, eventually also including research on the effects of political misperceptions. The authors would very much welcome suggestions for joint activities should any readers agree with this concern.
Senior Researcher, Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute
Research Director, Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute
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Table 4: Press freedom ranking 2018 (random selection; total number of countries: 180)
Source: Reporters sans frontiers (2018).
Table 5: Media ownership distribution worldwide