Written By: Security.org Team | Published: January 19, 2021

While the definition of what constitutes misinformation could depend on your point of view, most Americans agree that the widespread dissemination of blatantly false and discredited information is bad for our society, whether in the context of alleged news or when it’s spread on social media.

The average person gets their news through a mishmash of sources, including social media, local news organizations, cable networks, and more. And we’re consuming increasing amounts of information; for the average adult, more than half their day is spent consuming media, much of it in the realm of news or social media. So it’s easy to understand how the truth isn’t always clear.

In an era when trust in institutions and even in each other appears to be waning, we wanted to understand the average American’s view of trustworthiness and accuracy, whether on the part of traditional media or the content they see shared on social media. Do they trust one more than another, what do they think should be done about concerted disinformation efforts, and what factors can influence their views on all these matters?

We surveyed more than 600 U.S. adults about their views on this topic (jump to the bottom of the page to see more about our methodology). Read on to see our full report, and check out the highlights below:

  • About 30 percent of people say mainstream news media sources are highly trustworthy; about seven percent of those who self-identify as “very conservative” said the same.
  • Most people are confident in their ability to spot inaccurate information — respondents’ average self-rating on a one-to-five scale was 3.8. (How good are you at spotting misinformation or disinformation? For instance, did you know they aren’t actually the same thing? Learn more about the distinctions.)
  • A third of people say journalists and media organizations bear the highest burden in debunking bogus information, but nearly as many (31 percent) said citizens are most responsible.

News, Social Media Trust & Accuracy

More than one-third of respondents said mainstream news sources, including TV networks, newspapers, and other traditional outlets, are “somewhat” trustworthy, while seven percent rated them as “extremely” trustworthy.

Trustworthiness rating of mainstream news sources
Extremely 7%
Very 23%
Somewhat 34%
Not so 18%
Not at all 19%

Major differences were apparent along divides related to age, household income, and — not surprisingly — political affiliation. Those who consider themselves “very conservative” are the least likely of all groups surveyed to rate the mainstream news media as “extremely” or “very” trustworthy, but most other groups give mainstream news a middling grade as well.

Trustworthiness ratings for mainstream sources are highest for those with household income in excess of $200,000, while older adults are more likely than their younger counterparts to say mainstream news is highly trustworthy.

Percentage rating mainstream news sources as trustworthy by group*
Politically “very liberal” 43%
Politically “very conservative” 7%
Politically “moderate” 27%
Age 60+ 38%
Age 18-29 24%
Household income $200,000+ 50%
Household income <$9,999 20%

* Trustworthy = Percentage rating news media “extremely” or “very” trustworthy

Social media platforms are even less trusted to deliver accurate news. Twitter and Reddit are the platforms respondents were most likely to say contained accurate news content, but in both cases, people were more likely to say the content they see on those sites is typically not accurate.

Platform Accurate Inaccurate
Twitter 16% 45%
Facebook 11% 57%
Instagram 10% 36%
TikTok 6% 36%
Reddit 11% 27%
YouTube 19% 33%

* Accurate = Percentage rating social media platforms’ news content as “almost always” or “mostly” accurate and “slightly more accurate than inaccurate”; inaccurate = percentage rating social media platforms’ news content as “almost always” or “mostly” inaccurate and “slightly more inaccurate than accurate”

Age and political affiliation were the biggest factors predicting a respondent’s estimation of the accuracy of content found on social platforms.

While 16 percent of all respondents told us the news content on Twitter is accurate, that rose to nearly 40 percent for those identifying as “very liberal” and fell to about 14 percent for those saying they’re “very conservative.”

The most trusted social media platform for conservative respondents is YouTube. Among those identifying as “very conservative,” about one-third said the news content on YouTube is accurate. And YouTube was the only social platform in our survey that received an accuracy rating among that group of more than 15 percent. On the other end of the political spectrum, four of the six platforms we asked about exceeded a 15 percent accuracy rating among those identifying as “very liberal.”

Our youngest respondents have a much different relationship with social media than those 60 and older. Those between 18 and 29 are much more likely than those 60 and older and respondents overall to say the content on all platforms we asked about is accurate, and Twitter receives their highest marks — about one-third say the news content shared there is accurate. Among those 60 and up, YouTube was the only platform to break double digits, with just over 20 percent rating the news content there as accurate.

The Sniff Test

How good are we at sussing out fake news from, well, real news? Respondents in our survey tend to give themselves high marks when it comes to spotting content that’s inaccurate, misleading, or outright false. In fact, if we were back in school, our average grade would be about a B+.

Self-rating of confidence in spotting misinformation or disinformation, 1-5 scale
1 2%
2 5%
3 28%
4 44%
5 21%

How do we filter out bogus content, and what do we do if we encounter it in the wild? The most common practice among our respondents was considering the credibility of the source before they share content, while other methods are less popular.

Percentage using fact/content checking before sharing
Consider credibility of author/publisher/publishing site 62%
Read or watch in entirety before sharing 57%
Check sources/citations 43%
Determine if sponsored or paid content 41%
Verify content on search engines 40%
Fact-checking site 32%
See if others have shared similar content 17%

Considering the credibility of the author or source was the most common response for individuals who identify as being in either political party, but liberals were more likely across the board to use each of the fact-checking methods we asked about. The biggest spread between the two poles was in factoring in the credibility of the publisher, while they were closest in sharing content if others have shared something similar.

Percentage using fact/content checking before sharing by self-reported political viewpoint
Method Very conservative Very liberal Difference
Check sources/citations 41% 49% +9%
Consider credibility of author/publisher/publishing site 52% 79% +26%
Determine if sponsored or paid content 36% 52% +15%
Fact-checking site 16% 35% +19%
Read or watch in entirety before sharing 50% 66% +16%
See if others have shared similar content 18% 26% +8%
Verify content on search engines 32% 51% +19%

How we handle the experience of seeing inaccurate information being shared on social media platforms depends on who is doing the sharing, as well as our age, gender, and political affiliation. Respondents indicated that if they know the person, they’re most likely to confront them privately, while if they don’t know the person, they’ll take advantage of platforms’ reporting features to flag posts for review.

Respondents were also much more likely to take no action in response to an inaccurate post shared by someone they don’t know than when someone they do know shares something suspect. However, public confrontations weren’t popular in either case, though they are considerably more likely if the poster is someone we don’t personally know.

Response to seeing inaccurate information shared on social media by type of person sharing
Response Personally acquainted Not personally acquainted
Confront them privately 50% 10%
Confront them publicly 11% 14%
Do nothing 13% 25%
Use the “reporting” feature to flag the post for review 18% 43%
Other 9% 8%

Nearly one in five men said they would publicly confront someone they didn’t know about sharing inaccurate content, while only about half as many women said the same. Those on the political extremes are more likely to engage in public confrontations, both with those they know personally and those they don’t. They also were the only groups more likely to say they’d sooner publicly call out a friend who shares wrong information than they would a person they’d never met.

Percentage of respondents saying they’d publicly confront someone over inaccurate social media content by political affiliation and type of person sharing
Political affiliation Personally acquainted Not personally acquainted
Very liberal 24% 17%
Liberal 10% 12%
Moderate 7% 13%
Conservative 5% 16%
Very conservative 21% 18%

Age was less predictive than other factors in how a person said they would respond to seeing inaccurate content shared on social media, but notably, the youngest respondents were most likely, regardless of the person sharing, to pass the buck to the platforms. For folks they don’t personally know, 18- to 29-year-olds said they’d use reporting features at a nearly 57 percent rate (no other group broke the 50 percent mark), and about one in four said the same for content shared by posters they’re personally acquainted with — also the highest rate among age groups.

What Should We Do to Curb Misinformation and Disinformation?

Virtually all survey respondents (about 97 percent) said the spread of misinformation and disinformation (MDI) is harmful to American society, and about two-in-three said they considered it an “extremely damaging” phenomenon.

The view of MDI as damaging to the country was consistent across all demographic groups, including age, gender, political affiliation, and more. But there’s less consensus about which groups are most responsible for debunking MDI or what consequences should follow.

About one-third of respondents said journalists were the most responsible party when it comes to fact-checking MDI that’s been shared publicly, while about 31 percent said citizens should bear the greatest burden.

Party most responsible for fact-checking publicly shared misinformation
Media/journalists 34%
Citizens 31%
Social platform/hosting platform 19%
Government/regulatory agencies 9%
Other 8%

Among those who responded “other,” about half said the entire society bears an equal burden. Men were more likely than women to say that citizens should lead the way in fact-checking MDI (37 percent vs. 26 percent), while government or regulatory intervention was most popular among those 18-29 (11 percent) as well as those identifying as “very conservative” or “very liberal” — about 11 percent for both.

Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, but legal and financial consequences for the malicious spreading of disinformation are popular, but not if they’re enforced against everyday people.

Percentage supporting penalties for malicious disinformation by group and type of penalty*
Group Financial Legal
Individuals 19% 23%
Public figures 59% 59%
Journalists, publishers, news organizations 69% 67%
Social media companies/platforms 55% 56%

* Percentage saying there should “always” be consequences

Across the board, those identifying with either end of the political spectrum were much more supportive of imposing penalties on those who maliciously spread disinformation. Support was highest for financial and legal penalties for journalists or members of the media who fall into this category, with those self-identifying as “very conservative” the most enthusiastic. By an average of 85 percent, this group said there should “always” be legal or financial penalties for journalists spreading malicious disinformation; that contrasts with an average of 74 percent of “very liberal” respondents who said the same.

Conclusion

If the average person believes they’re good or very good at detecting misinformation and disinformation, and most people give traditional news sources a barely passing grade, and we consider most of what is shared on social media to be inaccurate — that doesn’t bode well for Americans’ understanding of what’s happening in the world.

Methodology

We surveyed 626 American adults on their views about misinformation and disinformation, media literacy, and related matters. Our survey was conducted online in January 2021.