For more than three decades, the Pew Research Center has examined how people think about democracy, trust in institutions, and the role of information in society. In light of current debates about the state of the democratic process and the importance of truth, we decided in 2018 to redouble our focus on the role of information and trust in democratic societies.
The decision reflected a changing world: In the U.S. and abroad, anxiety over misinformation has increased alongside political polarization and growing fragmentation of the media. Faith in institutions has declined, cynicism has risen, and citizens are becoming their own information curators. All of these trends are fundamentally changing the way people arrive at the kind of informed opinions that can drive effective governance and political compromise.
Global in scope, the center’s “Trust, Facts and Democracy” initiative has published more than 50 pieces of related research. And through the 2020 election cycle, we’ll release several additional reports.
The center’s work delves into a confluence of factors challenging the essential role that trust and facts play in a democratic society: Americans’ disintegrating trust in each other to make informed choices, their apprehension at the ability of others to effectively navigate misinformation, and the increasingly corrosive antagonism and distance across party lines, where even objective facts can be viewed through the prism of partisanship.
Our surveys have found that while Americans generally agree on democratic ideals and values that are important for the United States, for the most part they see the country falling well short in living up to these ideals.
This “democratic deficit” extends to a growing and troubling public distrust in each other’s ability to make informed decisions about democratic leadership. Almost 8 in 10 (78 percent) say that knowledgeable voters are very important to the U.S., yet when asked how the phrase “voters are knowledgeable about candidates and issues” describes the country, about 4 in 10 (39 percent) say it characterizes the nation even somewhat well.
This lack of trust in each other’s ability to make astute political choices is a relatively new phenomenon. About 6 in 10 adults now say they have little or no confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions while 39 percent express at least some confidence. As recently as 2007 that balance of opinion was almost the reverse, with 57 percent confident and just 42 percent not confident in their fellow citizens.
Driving Americans’ doubts about each other is their increasingly bitter partisan animosity, as well as their anxiety that fellow citizens are too easily misled in the fractured social media and digital communications environment.
About two-thirds think made-up news and altered videos create a great deal of confusion about the facts of current issues. And while Americans put a good deal of faith in their own ability to recognize inaccurate or misleading information, they are less sure about others’ ability to discern it.
In particular, Americans are wary about the role of social media in the nation’s news diet. While more than half (55 percent) of adults report that they get news from social media at least sometimes, almost two-thirds (62 percent) say social media companies have too much control over the mix of news that people see on their sites. And an overwhelming majority (83 percent) says one-sided and inaccurate news is a “very big” or “moderately big” problem on social media.
Across all forms of media, Americans express deep concern over the creation and spread of made-up news. More view it as a very big problem for the country than they do terrorism, illegal immigration, racism, and sexism. Additionally, nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults (68 percent) say made-up news and information greatly affect Americans’ confidence in government institutions, and roughly half (54 percent) say it’s having a major impact on our confidence in each other.
Against this backdrop, the center’s research has found that the public is struggling to differentiate between fact and opinion. A survey measuring the public’s ability to distinguish between five news-related statements (ones that could be proved or disproved based on objective factual evidence) and five opinion statements found that only about one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans correctly identified all five factual statements as facts, and just 35 percent identified all five opinion statements correctly as opinions.
Not surprisingly, fact and opinion statements are often viewed through a prism of partisanship. Overall, Republicans and Democrats are more likely to classify a news statement as factual if it favors their side. Consider the factual statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States.” Nearly 9 in 10 Democrats (89 percent) correctly identified it as a factual statement, compared with 63 percent of Republicans.
Similarly, Republicans and Democrats are more likely to incorrectly classify opinions as factual when they favor their side. For example, the opinion statement that “increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential to the health of the U.S. economy”—generally viewed as an issue favored by Democrats—was viewed as fact by 37 percent of Democrats. By contrast, just 17 percent of Republicans classified it as fact.
So it’s probably no surprise that there’s a widespread lack of confidence that we share a common set of truths and ideals as a nation. Fully 73 percent of the public says that most Republican and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also disagree on “basic facts.”
But both sides agree on the poor state of public discourse in this country. Large majorities complain that the tone and nature of political debate in the country has become more negative (85 percent), less respectful (85 percent), and less fact-based (76 percent) over the past several years. And 6 in 10 say that discourse has been less focused on issues than in the past.
Fifty-five percent say President Donald Trump has changed the tone and nature of political debate in this country for the worse, less than half as many (24 percent) say he has changed it for the better, and 20 percent say he has had little impact.
But the president’s role in the state of the nation’s political discourse breaks along party lines. Democrats overwhelmingly (84 percent) have negative reactions to Trump’s statements, while the reactions of Republicans are more varied. About half of Republicans (49 percent) say he has changed political discourse for the better, while 23 percent say he has changed it for the worse and 27 percent say he hasn’t changed it much either way.
When it comes to the nature of partisan polarization in this era, there is little evidence that the nation is more divided or that either party is taking more extreme policy positions. Instead, polarization is about the alignment of nearly all major social and issue divides along the same partisan cleavage, and the much deeper levels of partisan animosity people express about those on the other side. Deeply negative views of the other party have grown to the point that 40 percent or more of Democrats and Republicans see the other party not just as people they disagree with, but as a threat to the well-being of the nation.
That does not mean that Democrats and Republicans feel more positively about their own political party. In fact, in a phenomenon that can be described as “negative partisanship,” their increasing allegiance to their party is driven by a disdain and fear of the other party and not by a loyalty and love for their own.
This mutual hostility has grown significantly in just a few years and is expressed in deeply personal terms. A majority (55 percent) of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans, an 8 percentage point increase from 2016. And 47 percent of Democrats now say the same about Republicans, a 12-point jump from just four years ago.
For these reasons, many Americans find that conversations about politics have become tense experiences they prefer to avoid. More than half (53 percent) say that talking about politics with someone they disagree with is stressful and frustrating. This discomfort has grown more among Democrats, rising to 57 percent from 45 percent in 2016, while changing little among Republicans. Among all Americans, confidence in the federal government and elected officials continues a decades-long descent.
In 1958, about three quarters (73 percent) expressed trust in government in Washington to do what’s right. Today, only 17 percent do.
But it is worth noting that this is not a turn against the broader role of government in American society. Today, 47 percent of Americans favor bigger government providing more services while the same amount want a smaller government doing less; that’s almost identical to the 44 percent-40 percent division of opinion in 1976. It’s also not a rejection of the government’s ability to perform: Most federal agencies get favorable ratings from the U.S. public, including the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, and even the Internal Revenue Service. And state and local governments have continued to receive positive public ratings throughout the past decade.
Rather, the public’s ire is focused on the electoral system in the U.S. and on Congress—and the way members of the Senate and the House of Representatives do their jobs. About three-quarters (74 percent) say elected officials don’t “care what people like me think” and put their own interests first. And although most see elected officials as intelligent and even patriotic, wide majorities think they are selfish and dishonest.
At the root of the public’s doubts is a skeptical view of how the electoral process has changed for the worse. About three-quarters also believe money is playing a bigger role in elections today than in the past. About half say congressional districts are not fairly drawn. About 4 in 10 say it is not clear that our elections are free from tampering. And, as discussed above, due to partisanship and concerns about misinformation, most lack confidence in the wisdom of their fellow voters.
But despite Americans’ doleful views on what has gone wrong, they remain optimistic that the challenges can be addressed. Fully 84 percent think that trust in government can be improved. And 86 percent believe it is possible to improve trust in each other.
Indeed, when Americans can move away from the political and partisan realm, their confidence in each other actually remains sound. Clear majorities are certain that their fellow citizens will act in a number of important pro-civic ways, such as reporting serious local problems to authorities, obeying federal and state laws, doing what they can to help those in need, and honestly reporting their income when paying taxes.
The center’s work on trust, facts, and democracy is meant to help explain how people in the U.S. and around the world gather information and whom they turn to as they try to make sense of it.
Moving forward, we will build on the center’s work on partisan polarization and animosity by exploring how feelings of alienation from the rhetoric of our political leaders—and anxiety over the pitfalls of talking about social and political issues in our personal lives—might be changing the civic conversation at the core of our democracy.
And with the 2020 election cycle well underway, the center will provide a concentrated focus on understanding today’s information environment and how it affects what people know and believe.
We offer this data without recommendations for action. Rather, we hope this work serves the variety of innovative approaches being offered by citizens, civic organizations, and policymakers who seek to channel the power of rigorous and objective information to inform decisions and strengthen democratic life.
Michael Dimock is president of the Pew Research Center.