When it comes to politics, most Americans get the majority of their information from entertainment sources. Whether it be Comedy Central’s hit program The Daily Show, or just the cartoon in the editorial section of the newspaper, people are paying attention, and they’re forming opinions that will affect their votes. While these formats attempt to education as well as entertain, the level of factual accuracy can widely vary.
It would be easy to dismiss the effect. After all, political satire is usually over-the-top and never meant to be taken at face value. The problem is that the jokes help to form a narrative that will stick with you long after the laughter subsides. When Saturday Night Live featured an actress portraying Sarah Palin, she delivered the memorable line “I can see Alaska from my house!” which ended up sticking in the public’s mind. It contributed to the perception that she was clueless and misinformed. When comedians and writers begin to “riff” off each other, the effect is reinforced over and over through different mediums.
A segment on The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver can offer up information that could directly change someone’s views, but short repeated jokes or memes can be just as effective. A meme of Hillary Clinton breathing fire seems ridiculous, but it shapes her public image appreciably. It’s an image that can easily be called up whenever she is mentioned. A study of the readers of Ants In Your Mouth Political Comics shows an increase in negative feelings towards all politicians across the board. These changes in attitude are prone to linger in the reader and encourage distrust towards elected officials.
There’s no denying that every source presents its spin, however subtle. From Fox News to CNN, any political piece is going to carry certain assumptions that establish their point of view as the logical way to think. When the viewer senses an agenda, it is easier for them to brace against the propaganda effect. When something is presented as purely humor or entertainment, the shields go down to a degree. The source is not perceived as having a serious agenda, and the assumptions are more readily absorbed. When Steven Colbert used to mock the right-wing talk show hosts, his persona was so over-the-top that it snuck right into the public consciousness. His outrageous traits became associated with their targets even as they were acknowledged to be exaggerated.
There is no real way to guard yourself against the sub-conscious biases that will be thrust upon you by entertainment sources. If you hope to maintain a principled approach to the political sphere, it’s wise to do heavy research with factual sources as the time to vote draws near. Otherwise, you may have some jokes bouncing around in your head, coloring your view of the candidates. Enjoy your political humor, but don’t let it change your mind.