Americans Believe That Misinformation Could Affect The Election. Here’s How A College Education Matters.

New polling by Gallup/Knight Foundation shows that the majority of Americans are very concerned about misinformation and its effects on the upcoming election. The probability-based web survey was conducted with 1,269 adults from Sept. 11-24, prior to the first presidential debate and before President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

According to the poll, roughly 80% of Americans are concerned — either very (48%) or somewhat (33%) — that misinformation on social media will sway the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Their level of concern differs considerably by political party, with 62% of Democrats very concerned about misinformation and its effect on the election, compared to 36% of Republicans and 40% of independents. Nonetheless, majorities of both Republicans and independents are at least somewhat concerned about misinformation’s potential impact.

The survey also asked respondents to evaluate how much misinformation was being spread by 13 potential sources. Only two — Donald Trump and social media — were seen by a majority of Americans “to be spreading a great deal of misinformation about recent U.S. events, including the election, protests and community violence, and the coronavirus.” The results for all 13 sources are presented in the figure below.

Educational Differences

In addition to political affiliation, level of education also moderated these opinions – in some cases substantially.

Predictably, given what we know from other polling, college graduates were much more skeptical of Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress than were respondents with less education. The reverse was true, but to a lesser degree, for opinions about Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats.

  • Among those with a high school diploma or less, 46% believed Trump was spreading a great deal of misinformation compared to 56% of those with some college education and 75% of college graduates.
  • Among respondents with a high school education or less, 34% believed that Republicans in Congress were the source of a great deal of misinformation. By contrast, 46% of those with some college and 53% of college graduates felt the same way.
  • Regarding Joe Biden, 39% of those with a high school education or less believed he was responsible for a great deal of misinformation, compared to 34% of those completing some college and 15% of those with a college degree.
  • Congressional Democrats were viewed as the source of a great deal of misinformation by 45% of individuals with a high school education or less, compared to 43% of those with some college and 19% of those completing college.

In general, respondents with a college degree were less skeptical of traditional media sources, established government agencies and elected state officials like governors. For example:

  • Whether judging network TV, cable TV, or major newspapers, respondents who held a college degree were less likely than those with lesser levels of education to believe that traditional media spreads great deal of information.
  • When it comes to state elected officials like governors, individuals with a high school diploma or less (30%) or some college (29%) were twice as likely as college graduates (15%) to believe such officials were the source of a great deal of misinformation.
  • An even stronger pattern emerged for views of government agencies like the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Roughly a quarter of those with only a high school education (25%) or some college (22%) saw them as spreading a great deal of misinformation, more than twice as many as those with a college degree (9%) answering the same way.

Social media websites and apps were viewed with considerable and equivalent skepticism across educational levels. College graduates (55%), those completing some college (53%) and respondents finishing high school or less (54%) believed social media was responsible for spreading a great deal of misinformation.

The poll also revealed that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to spreading misinformation, regardless of whom it may help politically. Just 3% strongly agree or agree it’s ok to spread misinformation even if it helps a candidate they support — 97% disagree, and 90% do so strongly. Americans of all educational levels responded similarly.

In addition, nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans believe social media companies should consider policy changes and interventions about what’s posted on their websites and apps and that they should enact those changes before the presidential election. Sixteen percent say they should wait until after the election, and 19% don’t think they need to make any changes to their rules. Those with a college eduction were the most inclined (77%) to believe that social media should make pre-election changes to discourage the spread of misinformation.

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