In the last few months, I wrote two write-ups on here dealing with the impact of right-wing views: Voter Fraud and the US Presidential Election, where I talk about the baselessness of claims of widespread voter fraud, and Note to Future Historians: Yes, Everyone Involved Should Have Known, where I point out that nothing that has happened in the last few years was the result of naivety. During the conversation around both of these, several people wrote to me pointing out that people's ability to differentiate fact from fiction had been eroded by years, if not decades of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, as well as all the extensions of that media ecosystem. (If you are thinking I am responding to a message by you personally, I am not: this was a common response). This has been a common line of discussion for years, to what extent Fox News and other forms of propaganda have eroded people's ability to think. Five years ago, the documentary "The Brainwashing of my Dad", detailing this phenomenon, was released.
I totally agree that not only the substance, but the media that something is presented with, shapes people's thoughts and feelings in a way that they might not recognize. The format of talk radio, meant to both flatter and enrage the listener, subtly leads people into thinking, and feeling, a certain way. The ability of peer pressure and reiteration for people to change their belief system, sometimes without realizing it, is a real thing.
"Brainwashing", as a term, originally meant propagandizing people through intensive and coercive interaction in a controlled environment over which the person had no control. Brainwashing, as a government or religious group might do it, had two related components. First, brainwashing usually kept people under constant physical and mental stress. 18 hour work days, lack of food, strenuous work, and the general ability to keep people on the edge of exhaustion so they didn't have the mental power to maintain their willpower and sense of self are preconditions to brainwashing. This deprivation also explains the coercion: when someone is eating 1200 calories a day, it is a lot more tempting to sell out their beliefs for a piece of bread. This enclosed atmosphere also leads to the other half of brainwashing: the constant, inescapable nature of the propaganda. Every interaction is planned out and unavoidable. All conversations are choreographed, with the brainwashers carefully picking people to talk to the target who will say the same thing, over and over. No deviation or discussion is allowed.
So, needless to say, for almost every person in the US who was "brainwashed by Fox News", these things were not present. The suburban dad who is relaxing in an easy chair after a dinner of chicken wings and ice cream is not under conditions of physical or mental exhaustion, or general deprivation. And while Fox News might be blaring from the screen, he has a channel changer in his hand, and his television has 300 channels, at least some of which share different political opinions, relatively unbiased news, or perhaps a nice National Geographic documentary. The people in Chinese reeducation camps could not push pause on their "reeducators", pad to the kitchen for a pint of Ben & Jerries, and then say they would rather watch National Geographic explain butterflies for a few hours. But almost all of the people who have been "brainwashed" by Fox News and company have that ability.
People have been persuaded, influenced, propagandized by these news outlets. Some people probably did fall into these beliefs with coercion, such as if they were young people with physically or mentally abusive parents who installed these values. But for the great majority of people, they have easy alternatives to seek other forms of information. They follow these narratives, by choice, because they provide an emotional high of anger and superiority. Calling people's intentional emotional connection to misinformation "brainwashing" is a disservice to people who actually have been forcefully coerced into adopting extreme belief systems.