The current, extreme polarization of the American public obviously cannot be attributed to any one cause. Differences in race, religion, gender, education, culture, experience– all of those things contribute to the way any particular individual sees the world.
But if I were pressed to identify a single culprit–a single source of today’s dysfunction–I would have to point a finger at our fragmented “Wild West” information environment. And research supports that accusation.
Americans are divided – that much is obvious after a contentious presidential election and transition, and in the midst of a politicized pandemic that has prompted a wide range of reactions.
But in addition to the familiar fault line of political partisanship, a look back at Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project finds there have consistently been dramatic divides between different groups of Americans based on where people get their information about what is going on in the world.
Pew’s Pathway Project found–unsurprisingly–that Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about the pandemic and the election.
And while Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.
The Pathways project explored Americans’ news habits and attitudes, and traced how those habits influenced what they believed to be true. The project focused on claims about the Coronavirus and the 2020 election; it drew its conclusions from 10 different surveys conducted on Pew’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of U.S. adults. Each survey consisted of about 9,000 or more U.S. adults, so the “n” (as researchers like to call the number of people participating in any particular study) was sufficient to produce very reliable results.
Over the course of the year, as part of the project, the Center published more than 50 individual analyses and made data from more than 580 survey questions available to the public in an interactive data tool. We now have the opportunity to look back at the findings over the full course of the year and gather together the key takeaways that emerged.
The report that did emerge can be accessed at the link. It explored key findings in five separate areas: evidence pointing to media “echo chambers” on the left and the right, and the identity and characteristics of the Americans who consistently turned to those echo chambers: Trump’s role as a source of news; Americans’ concerns about and views of what constitutes misinformation; the distinctive characteristics of Americans who rely on social media for their news; and a final chapter tracing changes in these beliefs and attitudes over time.
The entire report is nuanced and substantive, as is most research from Pew, but the “take away” is obvious: Americans today occupy information “bubbles” that allow them to inhabit wildly different realities.
This most recent study builds on what most thoughtful Americans have come to recognize over the past few years, and what prior studies have documented. One study that has received wide dissemination found that watching only Fox News made people less Informed than those who watched no news at all. The study found NPR and the Sunday morning television shows to be most informative.
There are fact-checking sites, and media bias sites that rate the reliability of news sources–but these sources are only useful when people access them. Ideologues of the Left and Right, who engage in confirmation bias, rarely do.
The Pew study builds on a number of others, and together they pose a critical question: since the law cannot draw a line between propaganda and truth without eviscerating the First Amendment, how do we overcome the vast informational trust chasm that the Internet has generated?