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?


  1. Perhaps we need to do more than beef up the teaching of Civics and also teach students how to recognize fact from fiction, news from opinion. A starting point would be learning to recognize the use of the following words in a “news report” as a red flag: allegedly, might, could, may, un-named sources… One has only to take a critical look at any news site to see the level of propaganda mixed with real news.

  2. I wonder which is cause and which is effect . Are Trump’s followers people who are not likely to question information from trusted sources, or do they become that way eventually by listening to him?

  3. This paranoid garbage is the result of the media trust chasm.

    The saddest words ever written

    The person who wrote this is unknown but there is much food for thought. This is all very disturbing. Please read the whole essay .

    It appears everything in Washington is crooked and on the take. Not just Congress but the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Pentagon, the Generals, literally everyone in Washington including those in the past administration. Add to all this Silicon Valley and the social media, cable news, a biased media, and foreign intervention. These groups amalgamated to become the Deep State.

    President Trump didn’t have a chance. He walked into this mess four years ago and tried to clean the swamp. But the swamp monster ate him alive piece by piece starting on Day 1. Unfortunately his actions over the past few weeks in disputing the election had a small roll for the events at the capital. All the good he did over the past four years wiped away .

    He’s a marked man for the rest of his life!!!

    So where does he go now? Where can he live? What is the impact on his family. As one top general said yesterday, he’s a great leader without a country.

    The changes that are coming will have time to affect senior citizens and will impact their children and grandchildren.

    The coronavirus impact on our country is mild compared to what lies ahead.

    Now you understand why there was never any action against the Clinton’s or Obama.
    – How they destroyed emails and evidence and phones and servers,
    – how they spied and wiretapped,
    – how they lied to the FISA Court,
    – had conversations on the tarmac, sent emails to cover their asses after key meetings,
    – how Comey and Brennan and Clapper never were brought to any justice,
    -how the FBI and CIA lied, how the Steele Dossier was passed along,
    – how phones got factory reset,
    – how leak after leak to an accomplice media went unchecked, – why George Soros is always in the shadows,
    – why they screamed Russia and pushed a sham impeachment,
    – why no one ever goes to jail,
    – why no one is ever charged,
    – why nothing ever happens.

    Why there was no wrongdoing in the FISA warrants,
    – why the Durham report was delayed.
    – Why Hunter will walk Scott free. (Diaper wearing Joe will give his whole family pardons)
    – Why the FBI sat on the laptop.
    – Why the Biden’s connection to China was overlooked and then they unleashed the perfect weapon,
    – a virus that could be weaponized politically to bring down the greatest ever economy and usher in unverifiable mail in voting.

    Why the media is 24/7 propaganda and lies,
    – why up is down and down is up, right is wrong and wrong is right.
    – Why social media silences the First Amendment and speaks over the President of the United States.

    This has been the plan by the Deep State all along. They didn’t expect Trump to win in 2016. He messed up their plans. Delayed it a little. They weren’t about to let it happen again. COVID-19 was weaponized, Governors helped shut down their states, the media helped shame and kill the economy, and the super lucky unverifiable mail in ballots were just the trick to make sure the career politician allegedly with hands in Chinese payrolls that couldn’t finish a sentence or collect a crowd, miraculously became the most popular vote recipient of all time.

    You have just witnessed a coup, the overthrow of the US free election system, the end of our constitutional republic, and the decline of capitalism into the slide toward socialism. What will happen next?

    Expect the borders to open up. Increased immigration. Expect agencies like CBP and INS and Homeland Security to be muzzled or even deleted. Law enforcement will see continued defunding. The electoral college will be gone. History erased. Two Supreme Court Justices might be removed. The Supreme Court will be packed. Your 2nd Amendment will be attacked. If you have a manufacturing job or oil industry job, get ready. If you run a business, brace for impact. Maybe you’ll be on the hook for slavery reparations, or have your suburbs turned into Section 8 housing. Your taxes are going to go up, and businesses will pay more. I could go on and on.

    There is no real recovery from this. The elections from here on will be decided by New York, Illinois, and California.

    The Republic will be dead. Mob rule and appeasement will run rampant. The candidate who offers the most from the Treasury will get the most votes. But the votes voted won’t matter, just the ones received and counted. That precedent has been set. “Benjamin Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when someone shouted out, ‘Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?'” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

    Ladies and gentlemen, you will now lose your Republic. You turned from God. You turned from family. You turned from country. You embraced degeneracy culture. You celebrated and looked to fools. You worshipped yourselves selfishly as you took for granted what men died to give you. You disregarded history and all it teaches. On your watch, America just died a little. It’s likely she’ll never be the same again. Some of you have no idea what you’ve done. Sadly, some of you do.

    And who has the guts to share this with friends and family that voted for Biden?

    “A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right and evil doesn’t become good just because it’s accepted by a majority”~ Booker T. Washington

  4. You mean memes aren’t factual journalism? How about memes that I agree with?

    I’ll have to look at Pew’s study, but I’ve read plenty of studies about the nature of our Fourth Estate, which is responsible for holding the powerful in our government accountable.

    I’ve read speeches from Biden and Antony Blinken, our new Sec of State, and both of them tout the importance of freedom of the press in our democracy.

    Meanwhile, we are literally torturing Julian Assange (based on United Nations) and charging him with an archaic Espionage Act, which is essentially what good journalists do — they rely on sources and whistleblowers. We imprison whistleblowers, but we don’t imprison war criminals.

    Furthermore, while our government and press give up lip service on the truth, we rank 45th globally for press freedom. For those who claim BBC is a great source, the UK ranks 35th for freedom of the press.

    Since an ideologue would shun these truths, I’m writing to the pragmatists who understand facts and evidence.

    If the sole entity granted immense powers under the Constitution to check the powerful in government ranks 45th globally, what does that tell you about the state of that government?

    Furthermore, if the government is not held accountable, what does that say about the “free market economy” that our government is supposed to regulate?

    You can teach Civics classes all day long, but our democracy ranks 25th globally. Our free press ranks 45th globally. We have a public and private sector running rampant and unchecked because our press has been neutered to mere propaganda and misinformation. What does that say about our society as a whole?

    It’s not a tiny bit off-kilter — it’s deeply flawed and rapidly getting worse.

  5. I believe society, as we knew it, is fracturing primarily due to two different major changes: The collapse of local newspapers, and the movement towards school choice. If they don’t get the post office straightened out, that could become another contributing factor. We are losing our commonalities.

  6. Is it interesting, or is it ironic that the more information we have available, the less we know?

  7. “The current, extreme polarization of the American public obviously cannot be attributed to any one cause.” True, but nearly all of it is the result of investment
    by the Oligarchy in the hacks and whores in the media and academia whose lies
    maximize such polarization. Divide and conquer works. See L.S. above.)

  8. “our fragmented “Wild West” information environment” would not be taking Americans down unless they were, to one degree or another, mentally and emotionally incapable of clean, clear critical thinking. America has slowly “fallen” into a state where there are too many people who are out of touch with reality, and have no way to get back to it without some sort of intervention. And the degree of resources that would be required to do so are beyond the capability of our government at any level.

  9. More emphasis on civics would help, but so would parent modeling. Most education (depending on how you want to define education) occurs outside the school house and as John Dewey with his emphasis on the social component of education suggested in his monographs. However, Dewey was a socialist, and therefore anything he had to say would have been suspect in our current bubbles society of trained seals.

  10. The problem goes deeper than where we choose to get our information. It turns out that even if given the information that would guide us to logical conclusions, if it contradicts our political views, we will still fail to comprehend.

    I was reading a NY Times Editorial about why politicians are against increasing the minimum wage and given data that they might have even lived through, they still don’t change their minds. People have a hard time believing something or even doing basic math if it contradicts their political beliefs. I thought this point was more interesting than even the opinion about the minimum wage.

    Here is a quote from the editorial, and then if you want to see the study yourself, a link to the study. The data in the study was made up just to test the hypothesis.
    But the point here is not that politicians tell lies. The problem runs deeper than that. People actually struggle to understand evidence contradicting their established views.

    Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, has found that people’s ability to solve math problems collapses when the right answer contradicts their political beliefs. In a 2013 study, for example, Mr. Kahan gave people data, sometimes describing it as being about the effectiveness of skin cream, and sometimes as being about the effectiveness of gun control. The ability to answer the same questions about the same numbers depended to a remarkable degree on respondents’ political views.


  11. This marks the first time in many months I’ve scrolled down to comments, despite reading the blog daily. A quick scan only reinforced my decision to simply read the column & not bother with comments which are posted. And, – Oh My Goodness! – just how ironic Are some of these comments, given the material in today’s article?

  12. I will read the entire report because It strikes me as a breath of the fresh air of truth about something that has been at the center of my conclusions about the human world as it exists in 2021. We are overrun with news as entertainment as we have achieved a level of comfort in life that allows it and pervasive devices to access it. The people who make great wealth from creating it make their money from loyal audiences. They perform for a certain culture. The human body of knowledge has exploded with our numbers and our innovativeness to the degree that it’s inconceivable for anyone ever now to know it all. It would take literally millions of highly collaborative experts to capture it all but, there’s the Internet, Google, and Wikipedia for those who are curious in broad enough ways. It sounds good but it is also very, very dysfunctional in all of the ways that now challenge progress. There’s no more compelling evidence of our downfall than anthropogenic global warming. We are literally throwing our future away to enjoy today.

    We will either recover or we won’t. Nothing but us in the universe cares about that outcome. We are in irons of our own volition way below deck on a sinking ship. We can’t see but we can sense the danger we are in.

  13. Well, Sheila, for once I’m going to have to disagree with you wholeheartedly. You are confusing cause and effect. The press is not causing divisiveness. It is simply taking advantage of the propensity of some certain individuals to be authoritarian in their perspective, thereby making substantial profits by catering to dysfunctional predispositions and tacitly giving them permission to express their authoritarian beliefs quite openly and often, now defiantly. If there is any cause, it is not that of causing the divisiveness, but rather that of giving it permission to be openly, and unabashedly expressed.

  14. if ya need the wild west and farmers who trump,welcome to NoDak. any and all of the above is present here,just for asking. ive read a few sites and research about the wild west and histories portrail as well as hollywoods sells it. its fun to delve into these minds here and listen for fun how they know all about everything,and pound their chest.. dumping on thier global knowlege and hearsay,spin,has become a norm for me.. im actully feeling fortunate not to belong to silos of the web and social medias. reading the die hard journalists who,still provide news,and comment,backed by the visable sources,in the very words,they said. comical to see tucker and hannity and other such,disc jockies (spin baby) take the air and turn it into a enviromental catastrophy. ill find the same piece on a stable news genre,and seek the actual story,and have a good laugh…goebbels is still alive and well,at fox.oan,newsmax,etc. he would be proud..

  15. Today’s post and the 14 responses seem to constitute an ideal crucible as a starting point for getting at what’s really going on.

    Responses have included name-calling which I think compartmentalizes (and obscures) some information.

    My own information bubbles and flawed thinking will not move anybody towards a common ground.

    I am more interested in getting how we – this relatively small cross section of people – can move towards understanding. I don’t have any ideas of insight into this mess. I am fairly certain though that the answer (if there is one) will be a result of exchanges such as this by ordinary people like us. No one is going to give us the answer.

  16. Misinformation is not a threat if citizens are capable of critical thinking. The propagation and growth of misinformation is the symptom, not the intrinsic problem. The problem is a legacy of our poor schools that leave our children without “BS monitors” — skepticism grounded in the scientific process of subjecting hypotheses to critical testing, followed by rejection of concepts that fail testing. Absent this scientific foundation, misinformation spreads like an infection through a society. Decades ago Jacob Bronowski recognized this, arguing that the greatest threat to western civilization was the willing suspension of disbelief among its citizens.

  17. I am so disheartened to read the words of Larry Shapiro. Wow. Here is what I I posted on Facebook.
    “The huge division between many of us is clearly marked based on todays blog. Here is the teaser: “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.”
    Interesting that my bias choose that paragraph to emphasize. I challenge a lot of people on being able to get to the basis of their point of view based on made up or biased information. I am in food fight with Braver Angels now about the lack of over site for some of the presenters information. In order for us to listen we MUST be able to trust the points of view. Just saying something doesn’t make it right. I am sick and tired of people who allow false statements to survive.
    Larry Shapiro, all that you wrote today screams of anger and sadness and a belief that 45 actually tried to be a leader. You are misinformed.

  18. Wick, you connected to what was going to be my point: The “BS detector,” is what Carl Sagan called it, writing in “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” a 1995 book in which the author aims to explain the scientific method to laypeople and to encourage people to learn critical and skeptical thinking.
    “Bubble?” My bud and neighbor, who loved, (loves?) him some Trump, was watching the Sean Spicer (He of the “alternate fact” world) Show, one day last week, when I happened to knock on his door.

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