Davison, who died in 2012, would have chortled at the snowdrifts of instant news analysis addressing the question of how Tuesday’s Trump-Biden debate played with the masses. Everybody lined up to claim a winner (here are the opinions of the New York Times columnists), but to accomplish that most had to intuit the views of the million “others” out there in TV land who watched the debate. Based on nothing more than a gut response, the USA Today editorial board immediately concluded that Trump’s interruptive rampage had not attracted undecideds to his candidacy. On MSNBC, Eugene Robinson similarly offered that Trump had not helped himself with his butting in, and that the nation was “appalled” by his performance. Trump missed his chance, opined an analyst in the Hill, but he also claimed the debate was going to change few votes. The prigs at PBS’ NewsHour proclaimed the debate unhelpful and possibly harmful for not soothing voter anxiety. By and large, the press treated the event as something that might persuade the mass audience but not the press itself, just as the third-person effect hypothesis predicts it would.
Once a reader is exposed to the third-person effect hypothesis, he sees it operating everywhere. For instance, few voters will step forward to claim they’re influenced by the editorials and endorsements printed by newspapers or campaign ads aired on TV. They tend to think they can see through high-handed persuasion and propaganda. But that same crowd, Davison pointed out, is likely to say that editorials, political endorsements and campaign ads exude potency because of their substantial impact on ordinary readers, not them. The third-person effect is not always worthless, thought Davison. A newspaper endorsement might be useful if a voter is convinced the endorsement will sway the masses. That individual might then vote for the endorsed candidate because he wants to vote for the winner.
Consider these other examples of the third-person effect. You might buy or dump a stock not because some news event convinces you that it’s a good pick but because you’re convinced that the news will sway the economic behavior of the regular guy. You panic buy not because you’re panicking but because you think others are. Or take the example of “fake news.” One survey found that most people were reasonably confident of their ability to detect fake news but unconfident about the power of others to do the same. The third-person effect shines brightly, too, when somebody seeks to censor a risqué film, suppress violent rap lyrics or cancel a provocative art show. The censor doesn’t want to ban the offending media because it may harm him. Quite the opposite. He’s happy to expose himself to the stuff, confident that he’s strong enough and amply sophisticated to resist its corrupting ways. Presenting himself as the accurate assessor of the average person’s sensibilities, he justifies banning media as a way to protect others from harm.
“Other people, we reason, do not know what we know,” Davison wrote. “Therefore, they are more likely to be influenced by media.”
The lesson the third-person effect preaches isn’t to completely discount the influence breaking news or propaganda or advertising might have on the other guy. To prohibit all speculation of how the “others” out there are responding to information would leave us nothing but poll data, fundraising numbers, speech and interview transcripts, and photos of campaign rallies in a daily news diet. Instead, Davison demonstrated the limits of our extrapolations about how the person in the street thinks, and instructed us to proceed humbly from that point. Never assume that the audience is more easily swayed by mass media messages than you are unless you’ve collected genuine data that proves that point. The people “out there” are more savvy than we give them credit for.
If you’re a member of the press and you want to talk about what the “others” think, at least take a stab at actually talking to them. Last night, CNN made such an effort by conducting an “instant poll” of 568 debate watchers (6 of 10 said Biden won) and focus-grouped self-described undecided voters. CNN’s ploy wasn’t perfect, but at least it didn’t allow a pundit to speak from a remove about what the people think. More of this, oh my media brothers and sisters, and less of the fraudulent divining of what goes on inside the country’s mind.