Shock findings: Junk TV undermines democracy

Enemies of society? Pan-Pan, Griz and Ice Bear star on Italy’s Mediaset TV network.

Is trashy television partly to blame for populism? Research shows that politicians peddling simple messages and easy answers are boosted by public exposure to “brain-numbing”, mindless TV.

Panda (nicknamed Pan-Pan), Griz and Ice Bear love to try and get on with humans. They like to shop, make friends and try to become famous on the internet, thought it doesn’t always work out. Human are just so…human. And they are bears after all.

In other ways, however, the bears are doing very well indeed. The cartoon, We Bare Bears, in which they feature has won eight awards. A full-length movie has just been announced for next year.

So, imagine their shock — if they could read the news — to find that they may be at least partly responsible for one of the most worrying of modern trends: the rise of intolerance and tribalism across the world.

Yesterday, a news report in The Washington Post suggested that there is strong evidence of a link between an enduring boost in support for extremist populist candidates and a heavy dose of cartoons, sports, soap operas, movies and other light entertainment on TV.

The number of populist leaders, such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Matteo Salvini, has more than doubled since the early 2000s. One in four Europeans voted for populist parties on average at their last election.

In the USA, a furious debate is raging about Trump’s racism and his supporters’ “send her home” chants directed at American congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

The news report was based on an academic study by a team of economists which examines the rise of Italian broadcaster Mediaset (a network churning out non-stop pulp TV; We Bare Bears is one of its best-loved shows), owned by the swashbuckling, right-wing, former president Silvio Berlusconi.

Since the 1980s, Mediaset has aggressively expanded to the point where, by 1990, 49 out of 50 Italians had access to it.

The results are bleak. The team found that exposure to Mediaset’s vapid programming was followed by an enduring boost in support for populist candidates peddling simple messages and easy answers.

In particular, results showed that young people who watched Mediaset during their formative years would grow up to be “less cognitively sophisticated and less civically minded” than their peers, who only had access to public broadcasting and local stations over the same period.

One economist, Ruben Durante, describes it as a matter of opportunity cost: every hour you spend watching TV is an hour you aren’t reading, playing outside, or socialising with other kids. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that may have long-term effects on what kind of person you will become.”

Italian adults from places where they were first exposed to Mediaset under the age of 10, had maths and reading scores that were significantly worse than those of their peers. They were also less politically active.

Cartoon politics?

It’s not surprising that these people were attracted to Berlusconi and, later, the Italian Five Star Movement, say some. Both use simple cartoon-like ideas and language in their speeches. Five Star was founded by a comedian. Turn voters into simpletons and you get what you deserve.

“Sheer snobbery!” respond others. Populism is a democratic movement against spoilt elites. Martin Luther King, Jesus, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all used simple stories and language to spread their ideas and lead great movements. And none of them would have criticised three cute bears.

You Decide

  1. Does what you watch on TV affect your character?
  2. Should education and news be a duty for all broadcasters?


  1. Think about your favourite story. Can you write it down in fewer than 100 words?
  2. Write a proposal (idea) for a cartoon that is both fun and teaches you something about the world.

Some People Say...

“Religion is not the opiate of the people. Television is.”

Perry Marshall, US author and consultant

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The academic data shows that by popularising certain linguistic codes and cultural models, entertainment TV may have contributed to creating a fertile ground for the success of populist leaders, and the undermining of mature democracy. This is what the new report says.
What do we not know?
That entertainment television itself causes populism. The report says that there must be other socio-economic drivers and discontents behind the rise of populism. What junk TV does is to create the right conditions for it to flourish.

Word Watch

Donald Trump
The 45th president of the USA and one of the most controversial ever. Aged 73, he is running for office again next year.
Nigel Farage
Populist British politician. Former leader of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party; now, leader of the Brexit party which beat all other UK parties in the European elections on 23 May 2019.
Matteo Salvini
Leader of Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League) political party, which is on the far right and opposes the EU. He is also deputy prime minister in Italy’s current coalition government.
Ilhan Omar
There has been an argument between Donald Trump and four Democratic congresswomen — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. The four women were targeted by the president in a controversial post on social media, in which he said they should “go back” to their home countries. Three of the women were born in the US. Omar was born in Somalia, came to the US as a child and is now a US citizen.
Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster, founded in 1987 by former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi. It is still controlled by his family’s holding company, Fininvest.
Pulp TV
Light entertainment that is cheap to make.
In this case, loud and showy. Also daring and fearless.
Silvio Berlusconi
An Italian media tycoon and politician who has served as Italian PM in four governments. He has been a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since July 2019.
Dull, uninteresting.
Five Star Movement
A political party in Italy founded on 4 October 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger.


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