This leaves option three: media effects -- specifically, the influence of spy movies and TV shows. This sounds silly, I know, but the data say otherwise. As I noted in my last column, spy-themed entertainment has skyrocketed over the past decade or so. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the boundary between fake spies and the real world is blurring in some disconcerting ways, from CIA directors pondering Hollywood hypotheticals in their confirmation hearings to Twitter users thanking Jack Bauer when Osama bin Laden was killed.
Now, this new poll is the first hard data suggesting that
spy fiction might be influencing public opinion about real intelligence issues.
The YouGov poll results reveal that Americans who say they frequently watch spy-themed
television shows or movies are significantly more likely than infrequent
watchers to approve of assassinating terrorists, torturing terrorists, and
using every torture technique pollsters asked about except threatening
terrorist detainees with dogs. (Spytainment fans, however, are not more likely to support dropping nuclear bombs on terrorists or
assassinating foreign leaders than anyone else.) Here are just a few examples
of the statistically significant results:
- 84 percent of frequent spy TV watchers are willing to assassinate terrorists vs. 70 percent of infrequent watchers
- 38 percent of frequent spy TV watchers believe waterboarding is right vs. 28 percent of infrequent watchers
- 60 percent of frequent spy TV watchers think transferring a terrorist to a country known for using torture is right vs. 45 percent of infrequent watchers
- 34 percent of spy-movie goers say that chaining naked terrorist detainees in uncomfortable positions is right vs. 27 percent of non-movie goers
- 53 percent of spy-movie goers support transferring terrorists to a country known for using torture vs. 41 percent of non-movie goers.
Of course, these results do not prove that spy-themed entertainment is causing anything. It could be that James Bond and Jason Bourne fans are just naturally more hawkish than the average Joe and are drawn to spytainment because of beliefs they already have. But I have my doubts. Entertainment can and has shifted popular culture and attitudes on other subjects. When L.A. Law was a hit television show in the late 1980s, law school applications hit record levels. The Navy still talks about the movie Top Gun as one of its best recruiting tools. More recently, prosecutors have been bemoaning "the CSI effect" -- how the popular television show has led jurors to expect fancy forensic evidence in court and to assume the government's case is weak without it. Before the 9/11 attacks, torture was almost always depicted in television and movies as something that bad guys did. That's not true anymore. The Bush administration may be over, but Bush-era terrorist torture and assassination policies are growing more popular.