The disparate reactions aren’t a surprise. Democrats have since 2016 expressed alarm at Russia’s online disinformation campaigns, while Trump has dismissed reports of foreign interference as partisan attacks against his administration.
Recent polling data shows, however, that Trump’s dismissive rhetoric hasn’t fully taken root among his Republican supporters. Republican and Democratic voters alike are worried about misinformation’s corrosive effects on U.S. politics and consider foreign governments responsible. At the same time, Republicans are even more likely to blame journalists for spreading misinformation than foreign actors, suggesting the two parties’ supporters continue to define the source of the problem in different ways.
Here’s how we did our research
These findings come from the latest George Washington University Politics Poll, a joint venture of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs, department of political science, and Graduate School of Political Management. The nationally representative survey of 1,200 U.S. adults was fielded Feb. 3 to 14 by the firm YouGov. The survey concluded before the recent news reports about possible Russian interference in the 2020 election.
Adapting measures developed by the Pew Research Center, we asked respondents, “How much of a problem do you think made-up news and information are in the country today?” Eighty-five percent said it was a “very big” or “moderately big” problem. That number includes 90 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats. In a sign of how thoroughly the debate about misinformation has permeated the public, fewer than 1 in 10 characterized its threat as small or nonexistent.
Americans express a wide variety of concerns about misinformation’s effects, as you can see in the graph below. Eighty percent say they worry either “a lot” or “some” that bogus information will mislead “average Americans,” and more than 7 in 10 fear it will undermine social trust, affect election outcomes, and thwart compromise and sensible policymaking.
When we ask whether misinformation will “lead you to believe something that is incorrect,” Americans are more sanguine, with just 59 percent expressing concern. This is consistent with the “third-person effect” — individuals often believe the media has a greater effect on other people than it has on them. Fake news on Facebook may fool your Uncle Elbert, but not you. In a separate question, 75 percent of respondents said misinformation on social media would have “some” or “a great deal” of influence on voters in 2020.
Democrats and Republicans have the same worries … mostly
Perhaps surprisingly, there are few partisan differences in the worries that respondents express. On seven of the 10 specific items we asked about, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is less than four points, as you can see in the graph below.
One notable exception involves the news media. While 68 percent of Democrats say misinformation makes it harder for journalists to do their jobs, just 47 percent of Republicans agree. Democrats are also slightly more inclined to say that misinformation undermines confidence in the media and support for institutions. The damage to core institutions is a bigger worry for Democrats.
Republicans and Democrats also agree on the source of misinformation … mostly
But even if Republicans and Democrats have many of the same concerns about misinformation’s effects, do they agree on the source of the problem? Yes and no.
In the graph below, we show the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who said several different groups are responsible for creating “a lot” or “some” misinformation. On a variety of measures, partisans see things similarly. For instance, overwhelming majorities of both Democrats and Republicans blame political leaders and their staffs, as well as members of the public (and maybe even Uncle Elbert).
That agreement even extends to the role of foreign entities. More than 8 in 10 Democrats and Republicans both said foreign governments and foreign-based individuals or groups create at least some misinformation. Despite pushback on that issue by Trump and other Republican politicians, GOP voters do think that foreign entities are sponsoring online disinformation campaigns.
To be sure, there are also partisan differences. Democrats (50 percent) were much more likely to say foreign governments produced “a lot” of misinformation than were Republicans, only 29 percent of whom characterized the level of foreign government misinformation that way.
And when we asked later in the survey how much influence respondents thought foreign disinformation campaigns would have on voters in the 2020 elections, 75 percent of Democrats but just 46 percent of Republicans said “a great deal” or “some.”
In a sign of how different the definition of the problem can be, 92 percent of Republicans said that journalists were responsible for misinformation, echoing the “fake news” rhetoric that has become a standard GOP talking point. Just 50 percent of Democrats agreed.
What does all this tell us?
All of this portrays a more complicated public opinion landscape than the dueling elite rhetoric would imply. Republicans and Democrats share concerns about the spread of misinformation — that it will undermine political cooperation and erode faith in American democracy. They also see foreign entities as bearing significant responsibility.
But with Republicans as likely to blame journalists as anyone else for the spread of misinformation, the weakening of trust in democratic institutions — one of Russia’s goals — is already underway. And with research by scholars at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics suggesting that Facebook remains unprepared to prevent online election interference, 2020 will bring further challenges to an electoral system facing threats from without and within.
Kimberly Gross is associate professor of media and public affairs and a researcher affiliated with the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University.