What Do Americans Really Think about Misinformation?


October 13, 2021

Americans across the political spectrum agree on very little today. We see poll after poll with data showing how divided we are as a country, unable to agree on basic facts about many of the most important issues and challenges we face.

According to one new poll, however, there is something that a huge majority of Americans apparently do see eye-to-eye on: the problem of misinformation.

Online misinformation and disinformation have worked their way into so many aspects of our lives today, influencing everything from how we view voting integrity and health care decisions to how we think about what our children are being taught in school. For our mandate here at the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative, the destructive ways in which misinformation campaigns (many of which are undertaken by hostile foreign actors) actively undermine our democratic system by promoting false conspiracy theories and encouraging distrust among the electorate is one of the most serious and stubborn challenges we face.

As public debate about political misinformation has exploded over the past several election cycles – in response to high-profile online campaigns organized by countries such as Russia — it is useful to get any data that gives us insight into how Americans view this problem and who they hold responsible.

In this new survey, conducted by the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a full 95% of respondents said that the spread of misinformation is a problem when it comes to getting information about current events and important issues, including 81% who said it is a major problem.

95 percent! That’s unheard of in any kind of polling on pretty much any issue in today’s America.

Now, to be fair, the polling team doesn’t appear to have defined the term “misinformation” for respondents. Is it quite possible that people view what misinformation encompasses very differently. For example, you can envision a scenario where people who believe false conspiracy theories about non-existent voter fraud or COVID-19 vaccine side effects would rate fact checks of those lies as “misinformation.”

In other words, the fact that Americans cannot seem to use a basic set of facts to adjudicate policy debates anymore might have skewed the results here, with one person’s “misinformation” being another’s straight news article.

Interestingly, the differences in responses between age groups did put some data behind the anecdotal stories we’ve all heard about misinformation. For example, while 41% of respondents reported being very or extremely worried that they’ve been exposed to misinformation, only 20% are similarly worried that they’ve personally spread it — with younger adults more likely than older adults to worry that they have spread misinformation.

We all know the caricature of someone’s grandparents posting inflammatory and false information on Facebook, so it makes sense that younger respondents who have used social media for a larger percentage of their lives would be more concerned about what they post and are exposed to online. That statistic is also fascinating because it underscores how many people have inflated senses of their own ability to detect bad information on social media. And a very small percentage believe that they themselves have done anything wrong.

Of course, I would venture to guess that almost everyone active on social media platforms today has been exposed to some misinformation or disinformation online — making that 41% who are worried about their own use (as opposed to the general concern about the issue) seem woefully low. More people, quite frankly, should be worried; too many people think they’re insulated.

So who do Americans hold responsible for this misinformation epidemic? In this survey, 91% of people said that social media companies were responsible for its spread, and 93% said the same about social media users. Again, those percentages are huge by themselves but especially when compared to polls of other hot button issues today.

When asked about foreign adversaries and their role in spreading misinformation — part of my research purview here in the Initiative — China and Russia were the most frequently cited by respondents as responsible, with Iran and other countries lagging behind. In reality, according to intelligence officials, Russia remains the most prolific internet threat, but China and others certainly have the capabilities to wreck quite a bit of havoc if they made policy decisions to do so.

There was one somewhat confusing data point in the survey, in my opinion, regarding the number of respondents who place the blame on “the U.S. government.” 72% answered that they thought U.S. politicians have quite a bit of responsibility for spreading misinformation, a number that makes sense in today’s heavily polarized political climate. But 61% of Republicans said the U.S. government itself bears quite a bit of responsibility (vs. 38% of Democrats). It’s really difficult to tell what this answer speaks to — whether it’s individuals blaming government officials they don’t like for misinformation or some version of fear of the “deep state” concept that former President Donald Trump and many of his supporters frequently invoked. Whichever it is, it is disturbing that so many Americans don’t trust their own government.

Overall, this survey is a helpful data set for those of us who study the impacts of foreign-based misinformation on the American political system. I am beginning to sound like a broken record by harping on the notion that foreign countries can only have success in dividing us with online nefarious efforts if they find a willing audience here.

But at a minimum, Americans do seem fairly united in their concern about the misinformation problem and in holding social media companies accountable for bad actions on their platforms. The classic policy conundrum when it comes to regulating social media companies is whether they are publishers responsible for the content on their platforms, or whether they are more like utilities (such as the telephone service, who is not held liable for things said using their product). Whether you are a frequent user or occasional lurker on these platforms, a general consensus seems to be emerging that believes they more closely represent a publisher, rather than a utility.

As we hear from more internal whistleblowers about the deficiencies inside these companies, I do expect to hear increasing calls for regulation. I’ve seen no signs, however, that those efforts might be matched by increasingly responsible online behavior.

Americans appear to believe that misinformation is a huge problem — it’s just not their problem.

Marie Harf
International Elections Analyst, USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative

Marie Harf is a strategist who has focused her career on promoting American foreign policy to domestic audiences. She has held senior positions at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, worked on political campaigns for President Barack Obama and Congressman Seth Moulton, and served as a cable news commentator. Marie has also been an Instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.