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Study Suggests That Watching Sean Hannity May Have Exacerbated Coronavirus Spread

Donald Trump and Sean Hannity celebrate the propaganda machine that is Fox news.

Bad information on its own is, well, bad. But when bad information comes from people with a big platform who market themselves as the only source of information that can be trusted, it can be downright deadly. And that’s not hyperbole, it’s the position of a new academic paper that asserts that Fox News’ Sean Hannity may have had a serious role in the spread of coronavirus.

The new study is by economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott at the University of Chicago, and is in working paper form at the moment, meaning it has not yet been peer-reviewed or published. Using existing data and polling, the researchers compared the influence of Fox News host Sean Hannity (a favorite of President Trump) and that of his network neighbor Tucker Carlson.

While Hannity and Carlson were on the same network, Hannity downplayed and ignored the dangers of coronavirus far more than Carlson, who urged more caution. The paper found that those who listened to Hannity instead of Carlson were less likely to adhere to social distancing. And in areas where Hannity was more popular than Carlson, there were higher rates of infection and death.

“Greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight leads to a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths … A one-standard deviation increase in relative viewership of Hannity relative to Carlson is associated with approximately 30 percent more COVID-19 cases on March 14, and 21 percent more COVID-19 deaths on March 28.

Now obviously, there are myriad factors that matter when it comes to the spread of coronavirus, but what this study emphasizes is how much influence people like Hannity have, and how when that influence is used to push dangerous misinformation and ignorance, it can potentially have frightening outcomes. And this is a comparison to Tucker Carlson, who also often has awful takes, but apparently a little less dangerous in this instance.

Fox News, of course, isn’t having it, as Vox reports:

In a statement, a Fox spokesperson disputed that these examples fairly conveyed the tone of their programming.

“The selective cherry-picked clips of Sean Hannity’s coverage used in this study are not only reckless and irresponsible, but down right factually wrong,” the spokesperson said. “As this timeline proves, Hannity has covered Covid-19 since the early days of the story. The ‘study’ almost completely ignores his coverage and repeated, specific warnings and concerns from January 27-February 26 including an early interview with Dr. Fauci in January. This is a reckless disregard for the truth.”

But the authors did more than highlight a few specific examples. They also used both a data analysis of transcripts and a systematic coding of show transcripts by five paid reviewers — methods that together exposed uncovered systematic differences in how much the shows covered the coronavirus and how seriously they told their audiences to take it.

When people like Sean Hannity, or say, Donald Trump, tell lies or avoid a topic entirely, people can suffer as a result, because they listen to these “authorities.” It’s as simple as that. As Vox writes, “If Fox News can affect the way Americans vote, it’s at least plausible to say that it might affect the way they approach a novel and confusing pandemic.” When pundits and presidents push the idea that we should do very dangerous things, like ignore social distancing or “re-open America” before it’s safe, many people listen. And that might be fine if those people existed in a vacuum, but they don’t. They’re our neighbors and parents and friends, and their irresponsible behavior in times like these doesn’t just endanger them, it endangers everyone. And businesses that re-open are risking their employees’ lives in a dangerous gamble.

I mention Trump here because he’s the perfect example, not just of someone that spreads misinformation, but of Sean Hannity’s audience. He’s a person caught in his own bubble, convinced that the rest of the media, the scientific community, and even other leaders and doctors don’t know what’s up. He only listens to information that supports his own world view, and when he acts on that bad information, lives are endangered.

Trump and bad news is a feedback loop, as John Oliver went into last week. And while there are likely valid critiques to be made of this study as it moves forward, it highlights something we already know is true: that in this brave new world, lies kill. It’s not just Hannity, it’s Trump and Rush Limbaugh and any number of the greedy, dangerous people who feel that “there are more important things than living.”

The worst part is, this kind of irresponsible flinging of bad information doesn’t tend to impact the people spreading it. Trump and Hannity are insulated by their privilege from real danger, but vulnerable communities will be the ones suffering. So the next time you’re at your parents and they have Hannity on, feel free to turn it off and tell them why, because you might just be saving a life. And that goes double for any statement from Donald Trump.

(via Vox, image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.