With conclusions that should surprise no one, a new poll reports that most people in the country admit to being duped at one time or another by a false report or conspiracy theory masquerading as news. But the majority of Americans in this poll said the biggest source of fake news is none other than the administration of Donald J. Trump.
A survey of more than 1,000 Americans by the education company StudySoup asked respondents to judge news outlets on whether they were considered trustworthy. The study also asked respondents to evaluate whether they had been taken in by false news stories and whether they believed a list of claims that included several false stories. There was an expected partisan divide on what was judged believable and what was not trusted.
In this project, we set out to reveal which news outlets Americans trust most, and which they consign to the fake news category. Going further, we studied how many citizens actually believe theories that have been roundly debunked. Our findings demonstrate just how polarized the state of news is in the present, and how facts are an increasingly endangered species in our discourse.
Polls about media often show a variety of conclusions, often based on political affiliation. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that 46 percent of Americans think the media make up stories about Trump (which Trump immediately took to Twitter to brag about). But another poll by the Newseum showed a boost in perceptions about the media: 43 percent of Americans say news outlets try to report the news without bias, an improvement from only 23 percent in 2016 and 24 percent in 2015.
Trump constantly attacks legitimate news organizations as fake news. But the StudySoup survey showed that nearly 60 percent of Americans consider what they’re being fed from the Trump White House as the real fake news. No surprise there, as the Washington Post count of Trump’s accumulated lies topped 1,300 by mid-October.
The StudySoup poll was broken down by political affiliation and by age. It revealed that:
- 55.8 percent of Republicans said they “probably or definitely” had been fooled by a fake news story while 25.3 percent said they hadn’t.
- 46.6 percent of Democrats said they had been taken in while 37.3 percent said they hadn’t.
- 32.3 percent of millennials don’t believe they have ever been fooled by a fake news story.
- 52.7 percent of Generation Xers admit that they have been duped.
- 20.2 percent of baby boomers say they aren’t sure.
The poll measured reactions to 36 different news sources. The outlets ranking highest on the fake news scale were all right-wing, with these at the top: Breitbart News, Fox News, Infowars, the Rush Limbaugh Show, and the Glenn Beck Program. A left-leaning news source also getting high marks in the fake news department was BuzzFeed, perhaps because people tend to think of them as a source of Facebook quizzes and celebrity gossip more than a credible source of information. As expected, the right-wing outlets were rated as accurate by Republicans and fake by Democrats, with opposite marks about BuzzFeed (and MSNBC).
The news outlets that received high marks for being believable were the PBS NewsHour, BBC News, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and The New Yorker, among others. This impression came from both Republicans and Democrats and from all age groups. (Note: it’s highly doubtful that all people answering the survey questions were familiar with all 36 of the news outlets and shows named in the poll.)
When it came to believing specific falsehoods, there was a correlation of which lies or truths people believed and their favorite news outlets. This is stating the obvious—for instance, nearly half of Fox News fans believed that Hillary Clinton was involved in the death of a staffer for the Democratic National Committee or that Barack Obama faked his birth certificate.
Those whose favorite news sources were in the credible category were most likely to believe news reports that are real. Nearly half of respondents (46.3 percent) who listed BBC News as a favorite news outlet said they believed climate change was real, although the fact that the percentage is under 50 percent is depressing.
When we correlated belief in unfounded conspiracies with respondents’ favorite news outlets, an interesting mix of outlets emerged. 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. …
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.
The most interesting statistic came from the perception of the White House as a source of fake news. In all, 58.5 percent of those polled said the news coming from the White House was false. It’s no surprise that the reaction was partisan; 78.6 percent of Democrats thought the Trump administration was fake news central, while only 20.3 percent of Republicans doubted the “alternative facts” delivered by the Trump White House. In a generational breakdown, 61.3 percent of baby boomers, 60.9 percent of millennials, and 53.1 percent of Gen-Xers saw Trump speaking with a forked tongue.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that multiple members of the Trump campaign regularly retweeted tweets from a fake Twitter account pushing Russian propaganda that purported to be an account of GOP officials in Tennessee. The account, @Ten_GOP, billed itself as the “Unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans,” but was operated from the Kremlin-backed “Russian troll farm,” or Internet Research Agency, according to a report from The Daily Beast. The account’s tweets regularly pushed falsehoods about voter fraud, outrage over Hillary Clinton’s email, WikiLeaks material blaming the Obama administration for the release of CIA material, and other nonsense. It took Twitter 11 months to shut down the account, which finally closed in August, but it had some 136,000 followers during the election.
Of course, Republicans would probably just say that whole report was fake news, too.