Poll: Americans struggle to identify true facts
In a sharply divided country, here’s something many Americans agree on: It’s hard to know what’s a true and honest fact.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts finds that regardless of political belief, many Americans say they have a hard time figuring out if information is true. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they often come across one-sided information and about 6 in 10 say they regularly see conflicting reports about the same set of facts from different sources.
“It is difficult to get facts. You have to read between the lines. You have to have a lot of common sense,” said Leah Williams, 29, of Modesto, California. A Republican, Williams says she relies on like-minded friends and family to help sort through conflicting information. “There are wolves in sheep’s clothing everywhere.”
Problematic: The poll found that 47% of Americans believe it’s difficult to know if the information they encounter is true, compared with 31% who find it easy to do so. When deciding whether something is factual, there is widespread consensus on the importance of transparency in how the information was gathered and if it is based on data. While Democrats and Republicans alike frequently find the process challenging, USAFacts founder Steve Ballmer said he’s still optimistic about the poll’s findings.
“Americans want to know the facts,” said Ballmer, the former chief executive at Microsoft. “Facts (are) a driver of decision making, of common discussion and common dialog.”
But as a president with a history of making false statements and repeating debunked conspiracy theories faces public hearings this week in only the fourth impeachment inquiry in the nation’s history, the poll finds that differing political beliefs led Americans down different paths as they try to determine what’s an unquestionable fact.
Who’s talking? Democrats are more likely to say they rely on scientists and academics, while Republicans are more likely to trust what they hear from President Donald Trump.
“When I hear him on Fox News — that’s where I get all my information,” said Al Corra, a 48-year-old Republican from Midland, Texas. Trump, he said, is the easiest way to cut through an otherwise confusing information environment.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to put a great deal of trust in the president’s statements, 40% to 5%. Overall, a majority of Americans (61%) have little to no trust in information about the government when it comes from Trump.
Corra said he distrusts academics as too “liberal,” and he’s not alone in that regard among Republicans. More Democrats than Republicans say they consider something to be factual if it’s been verified by scientists — 72% versus 40% — as well as academics — 57% versus 30%.
Scott Austin, a Democrat from Aurora, Colorado, says he generally trusts scientists, but checks their affiliations carefully because he believes fraudulent information abounds. “If I see something that some scientist from Stanford says, I’ll believe that because it’s Stanford,” he said.
Austin, a 52-year-old Army veteran, says he has to ping-pong from website to website to try to verify facts and has found himself increasingly skeptical of government information. Like 54% of Americans, he believes the president has a lot of sway over the information distributed by the government, and that’s made him increasingly skeptical given his lack of trust in what Trump says to be true.
“I never had a problem trusting the government under Democratic or Republican administrations — until this administration,” Austin said.
Close to half of Americans — 45% — also think members of Congress have a lot of influence on information that comes from the government, while just 3 in 10 say the same of federal agency employees.
Ballmer said it’s actually those federal employees who should be trusted most to deliver facts in which the country can be confident.
“These people don’t change with administrations,” he said. “They publish the data as they collect it. I might add that computer systems are nonpartisan. They rake in data and they put it out. And that’s what’s happening at these government agencies.”
What’s important? When it comes to assessing whether information is factual, at least three-quarters of Americans think it’s very important for it to be accurate, and that sources provide all relevant information and explain the way that information was gathered. Smaller majorities say the information should include opposing viewpoints and be devoid of opinion.
About 6 in 10 say they are very likely to consider information factual if it is based on data.
Many Americans say they rely on government websites, as well as news sources and social media, to get information. In total, 54% say they get information about the government from social media at least once a day, 52% say that about local TV news, 50% from national TV news networks and 47% from cable news. About 6 in 10 also say they have used government websites to look up information.
And yet, poll found widespread skepticism about these sources — majorities say they have little to no confidence in information they get about the government from social media, the president, members of Congress and businesses.
Lynn Joseph, a retired artist in Las Vegas, tries to ferret out information on the internet, but is skeptical of just about all sources nowadays. “Do I trust anybody? No,” she said. “My philosophy is everybody’s guilty until proven innocent.”
Joseph, a Republican, is among the modest group of Trump supporters who don’t trust the accuracy of his statements. Overall, about a third of those who approve of the president say they trust information they get from him about the government only a moderate amount, and roughly another quarter say they have little to no trust.
“I’m a Trump supporter, but I know about him,” she said. “He speaks before he should.”
Riccardi reported from Denver, Colorado.
The AP-NORC/USAFacts poll of 1,032 adults was conducted Oct. 15-28 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.
AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/