We’ve seen how disinformation has become a major source of chaos in the media, and likewise on down the chain to the communications industry—but how does deliberately misleading or biased information spread in U.S. society, what parties are most responsible for sharing it, and whose job is it to combat it? New research from the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) seeks answers in its second annual report, with research partner Morning Consult.
New in the 2020 report are questions about why people do or do not share certain content on social media, media consumption habits, and the perceived impact of disinformation on society and the election process.
“First, it’s essential to understand how disinformation influences society,” wrote Dr. Tina McCorkindale, IPR president and CEO, and Steve Cody, IPR chair and founder of Peppercomm, in a supplemental letter to report readers. “In 2019, a study by Oxford University found evidence that organized social media manipulation campaigns have taken place in 70 countries, a 150 percent increase from when they started collecting data in 2017. Studies have also investigated the influence of disinformation on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Based on an analysis of Twitter, a 2018 Knight Foundation report determined many of the accounts active in the 2016 election disinformation campaigns continue to operate, despite clear evidence of automated activity.
“The 2020 U.S. presidential election will be no exception to the threat of disinformation, perpetuated by ‘foreign malicious actors’ who want to ‘undermine our democratic institutions,’ according to the U.S. Department of Justice,” the letter continues. “Disinformation will increase dramatically in intensity and frequency as the 2020 election in November draws near.”
Disinformation is a significant problem compared to other societal issues
The two most significant problems in 2020 according to Americans are infectious disease outbreaks (74 percent) and healthcare costs (72 percent). While more than half of Americans see misinformation and disinformation as “major problems” in the U.S., the public’s level of concern declined from 2019 to 2020. Sixty-one percent are concerned about misinformation (down from 65 percent in 2019) and 58 percent are concerned about disinformation (down from 63 percent). Nevertheless, misinformation and disinformation are deemed to be major problems more frequently than illegal drug use or abuse (55 percent), crime (55 percent), gun violence (54 percent), and political partisanship (53 percent).
Americans believe disinformation undermines the election process
Eighty-four percent of respondents said disinformation was a problem. Seventy-two percent believe disinformation is a threat to democracy, and 69 percent say it undermines the election process. Only six percent or fewer disagree with these statements.
Republicans and Democrats differ widely about the trustworthiness of news sources and various groups—with one exception
Local news sources (broadcast and newspapers) are one of the least polarizing sources for information. Overall, 70 percent of overall respondents say they have at least “some trust” in local broadcast TV news and 60 percent trust local newspapers.
Disinformation has changed Americans news consumption
A surprising 31 percent claim they avoid watching or listening to the news because of the amount of disinformation. Additionally, 24 percent say they are more likely to read sources outside the U.S. because of the amount of disinformation in the U.S.
“We anticipate this problem will grow as technology costs decrease, sophistication increases, and the successes of disinformation campaigns continue,” added McCorkindale and Cody. “IPR plans to continue studying the impact of disinformation on society as we believe it has critical implications not just for our profession but for society and our democratic processes as well. As communicators, we need to be more vigilant than ever to define what is, or is not, true.”
This poll was conducted between March 25-27, 2020, by Morning Consult among a national sample of 2,200 adults. The interviews were conducted online, and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on age, educational attainment, gender, race, and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.