Hocus pocus: props on the Harry Potter set at the Warner Bros Studio Tour London. Photo: Gettty
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Magic effect: how Harry Potter has influenced the political values of the Millennial generation

Reading the books correlated with higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture.

The idea that entertainment has an effect on our politics might seem ludicrous to some. Many would scoff at the notion that the Star Wars saga might have influenced the political socialisation of Generation X. Or that the music that the baby boomers listened to played a supporting role in the development of that generation’s politics.

And perhaps, most ridiculous of all, is the idea that J K Rowling’s immensely popular tale of the boy-who-lived could have played a role in the political development of that generation, the Millenials. Let alone an election result. But this is exactly what some recent research of mine indicates.

I found empirical support for the idea that the Harry Potter series influenced the political values and perspectives of the generation that came of age with these books. Reading the books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture. As Harry Potter fans will have noted, these are major themes repeated throughout the series. These correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses – when controlling for, among other things, parental influence.

I’m not saying, Rita Skeeter like, that “Harry Potter helped Obama get elected” or that “Harry Potter books brainwashed millennials”, as much of the coverage of my research indicated. It’s of course much more nuanced than this. And in a world where consumption of entertainment media is escalating, allowing many to avoid news coverage altogether in favour of fun, thinking about this is more important than ever.

More recognisable than any political logo. Dave Catchpole, CC BY-SA

Who is rational?

Scepticism of the notion that our entertainment consumption shapes our political perspectives only has traction if you think that we arrive at our political views rationally. And there’s a long record of research in multiple disciplines (psychology, sociology, and political science to name a few) that thoroughly debunks the notion that we acquire political values and attitudes through a rational process.

And research into how we immerse ourselves in stories has demonstrated that we do not process ideas in entertainment the same way we process information – we react on a more emotional level, at a distance from real world facts.

The next scornful retort is that people’s choice of entertainment will reflect their pre-existing political views. But the argument of selective exposure – that we only consume media that is congruent with our existing beliefs – is less applicable to entertainment than it is to overly political media.

We’re often drawn to stories for reasons that may have nothing to do with our views. This may be its popularity, attention given to it in the media, critical reviews, special effects, advertising, boredom, inadvertent exposure when we have little choice – the reasons go on. And once we’re immersed in the book, TV programme, film or whatever, once we’ve come to identify with certain characters we are, as communications scholars have demonstrated, likely to internalise the lessons of the narrative, and emulate the qualities of those with whom we identify.

Selective exposure is also complicated by the fact that the politically relevant lessons of a narrative or the qualities of fictional characters are not always evident early on in the story. And they may evolve throughout it. Take that of Darth Vader, a cultural icon of evil, for example – he turns out to still have some good in him at the end. Or there’s the Cylons of the recent reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, who evolve from genocidal robots to a form of intelligent life deserving acceptance and tolerance.

Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards is a dark take on US politics. Image: Screenshot from trailer

When we’re consuming entertainment stories it’s likely that we’re more susceptible to politically relevant messages – we’re relaxing, having fun, our political “guard” is down. Indeed, most people are largely unaware of the politically relevant content of that which they watch or read because they are not looking for it. And certain politically relevant messages are so ubiquitous throughout our culture that they become invisible to us. Take the overwhelmingly positive portray of guns in US media – it’s incredibly rare to see a hero without a gun.

Selective exposure is also less likely to occur among younger media consumers who have yet to fully form their political views. This is a point especially applicable to the media teenagers consume, like the Harry Potter series.

A great volume of research has been devoted to the effects of entertainment on social phenomena such as violence, sex, smoking and drinking. In this light, perhaps it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to give some attention to how entertainment shapes our politics. There have been a handful of published pieces that demonstrate the role of entertainment media, but more empirical research is needed.

In addition to Harry Potter, I also have preliminary results from two other recent studies. One, an experiment that found that exposure to different types of science fiction and fantasy villains affected attitudes about criminal justice. And another that found that exposure to Game of Thrones and House of Cards reduced the tendency to believe in a just world.

There are certainly methodological issues with teasing out entertainment media effects, but those difficulties have not stopped researchers on other similarly sticky subjects. We need to consider the role of entertainment media in the development of political perspectives, in how citizens see their governments, leaders, and policies. This is something that is ever more important in our era of unlimited media choice.

The ConversationAnthony Gierzynski does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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