Americans across the political spectrum, led by Republicans, admit they have been duped by “fake news,” or partisan propaganda and outright fabrications, a new national study has found.
“In a heartening display of humility, many of our participants admitted they feared they’d been duped by fake news before. In fact, nearly 56 percent of Republicans said they had probably or definitely been deceived, and over 46 percent of Democrats said the same,” said the analysis accompanying the survey of 1,000 Americans by the education company StudySoup.com.
“Despite President Trump’s relentless criticism of the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media), it was conservative outlets that struggled most to achieve credibility in the eyes of our participants,” the survey noted. “Helmed once again by Steve Bannon, Breitbart was rated ‘fake news’ by no fewer than 44.9 percent of respondents, followed closely by Fox News, Infowars, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. The least believed publication with a more liberal orientation was Buzzfeed, which might be concerned by its lack of trust among millennials—a demographic the site has spent considerable time courting.”
The survey also found that Trump’s persistent attacks on specific media outlets were affecting their reputation.
“CNN’s reputation has also apparently suffered a bit after being singled out by President Trump and his supporters for its unfavorable coverage. The network so infuriated Trump fans in 2016 that ‘CNN sucks’ chants abounded at their rallies,” the survey report said. “Similarly, 1 in 10 respondents identified The New York Times as fake. President Trump’s preferred insult for the outlet is ‘failing,’ although his candidacy has actually buoyed the paper’s financial fortunes.”
StudySoup set out to assess not just what media outlets are most and least trusted, but what percentages of their viewers believe conspiracies that have been repeatedly debunked by independent fact-checkers. Their findings underscore how Americans, like the media they trust, are deeply polarized “and how facts are an increasingly endangered species in our discourse.”
The survey found millennials, the youngest age group questioned, were most confident in their ability to avoid deception. Nearly a third said they had not been fooled by fake news. In contrast, slightly more than half of Gen Xers admitted they believed something that was distorted or fabricated. A fifth of Baby Boomers said they were “not sure” if they had been fooled or not.
A majority in all these age groups agreed that “fake news is being spread by the White House.”
“In the battle to distinguish between true and false coverage, many Americans feel they have a powerful enemy: the executive branch,” the report said. “In fact, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said the White House was serving fake news, an opinion likely furthered by dubious claims advanced by [former Press Secretary] Sean Spicer or Trump’s insistence that widespread voter fraud took place. Even 1 in 5 Republicans said they felt the president’s team was giving voice to suspect information.”
There was also evidence of buyer’s remorse from a key Trump constituency: older voters.
“While the majority in every generation thought the White House was fudging facts, baby boomers were the most critical,” it said. “That’s an interesting metric in light of the demographic groups who favored President Trump most heavily in November. Older voters supported the president by the widest margin, playing a key role in his eventual election.”
The survey also correlated conspiracy theories with viewers of various media outlets. For example, slightly more than half the people who believe “vaccines cause autism” said their favorite news outlet is CNN and Fox News. This was followed by NBC News (34%); ABC News (27%); PBS Newshour (24%); BBC (22%); the Washington Post (22%); the New York Times (17%); Google News (15%); and NPR (12%).
Fox News was confirmed as the favorite news source for people who believe that “Hillary Clinton was involved in a DNC staffer’s death” (48%); “Barack Obama faked his birth certificate” (63%); and “the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax” (47%). In contrast, people whose favorite outlets were the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR were least likely to believe those thoroughly debunked claims.
But the survey also found oddities.
“When we correlated belief in unfounded conspiracies with respondents’ favorite news outlets, an interesting mix of outlets emerged,” it reported. “For instance, lovers of Fox News were most susceptible to trusting in the Obama birther belief, Sandy Hook hoax, and Clinton murder myths (though the network is currently embroiled in a lawsuit involving the specious Clinton story). Yet fans of BBC and PBS NewsHour were also among the most likely to believe these false stories—perhaps an indication that these outlets resisted covering the conspiracies at all, let along debunking them.”
“BBC devotees were also most likely to believe in climate change and the charge that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia,” it continued. “Perhaps these statistics should be expected from an organization that has frequently been criticized for liberal bias. Surprisingly, CNN viewers were most likely to believe that vaccines were linked to autism, a myth the network has thoroughly repudiated.”
The survey also found, unsurprisingly, that “more than half” of Democrats believed the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Similarly, less than one-fifth of Republicans “believed in climate change.”
Stepping back, the study’s big-picture takeaway confirms what many Americans know or feel: that we now live in an era where opinion and belief outweigh facts and evidence.
“As our results make clear, America’s media cynicism is a double-edged sword. While it equips us to assess information critically, it also prevents us from broadening our perspectives beyond the sources we already entrust. Just as our findings show that we are willing to interrogate suspect claims, our suspicion of institutions fuels lingering myths, casting their debunking into doubt.”
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).