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79 Percent of Americans Worry About Misinformation Ahead of Elections

A new poll finds US news audiences must contend with the “Wild West of fact checking.”

As the November elections approach, a new poll reveals that the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum are deeply concerned about the deliberate spread of disinformation on platforms controlled by Big Tech.

A national survey commissioned by the media reform group Free Press found that 79 percent of people polled worry the information they are seeing online is “false, fake, or a deliberate attempt to confuse.” As serial liar Donald Trump prepares to face off against embattled President Joe Biden, 76 percent of those polled said they are concerned about misinformation regarding the presidential election. The poll also finds that large majorities are especially worried about coverage of local elections in their own communities.

The past decade saw the unprecedented rise of online disinformation as public trust in corporate media outlets eroded. Local newsrooms collapsed under pressure from both social media and vulture capitalists who swept in to gut struggling outlets. Artificial intelligence, or AI, programs such as ChatGPT have emerged as convenient but extremely controversial — and often incorrect — sources of information. Other countries have already struggled with AI generated “deep fakes” in their own elections this year. Potential voters have plenty of reasons to feel uneasy about the rapidly changing media landscape.

While three in four respondents said they still access traditional news on television and radio at least on weekly basis, over 50 percent say they regularly get their news from two Big Tech platforms: Facebook and YouTube. Black and Latino people are more likely than white people to access news on those platforms and share content on social media.

Revenues for local news outlets have plunged in recent years as platforms like Facebook and YouTube siphoned away their traffic and advertisers. In 2023 alone, an average of 2.5 local newspapers shut down per week. Only 28 percent of survey respondents said they felt “very well informed” when voting in local elections. Alarmingly, Latinos and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders were even less likely to say they had access to enough information to vote locally.

Henry Fernandez, a pollster with the African American Research Collaborative, said the survey should be a wake-up call, both for media outlets and democracy advocates.

“This survey has made clear that we’re still in the Wild West of fact checking, with a large majority of Americans taking it upon themselves to verify information they read or hear,” Fernandez said in a statement on Tuesday.

An overwhelming majority of respondents are also worried about their privacy as Big Tech companies make billions of dollars in profits from gathering and selling user data. The poll found that 72 percent are concerned about tech companies tracking them online, and 78 percent worry about various platforms selling their data to marketing companies. While platforms like Facebook and Google, who owns YouTube, claim they don’t sell user data, they do profit off of it through targeted advertising.

Reflecting broad mistrust across the political spectrum, a whopping 83 percent worry about state and federal governments using Big Tech platforms to track their location and use their data against them.

The poll reveals challenges that advocates for media reform and multiracial democracy have pushed both Congress and regulators at the Federal Communications Commission to address for years. The House and Senate are known for grilling social media executives in blockbuster hearings, but finding partisan agreement on policies to protect consumers and increase their options to access news has proven elusive.

Despite its widespread popularity, Congress has struggled to agree on renewing funding for American Connectivity Program, which provides $30 monthly subsidies (and $75 for residents of tribal lands) to help 23 million households pay for internet service. As funding expires, lower-income communities are at risk of losing up to $20 billion annually in economic benefits that come with an internet connection, which is now crucial for securing jobs, health care, and other supports.

Pollsters also found that majorities of news consumers across the racial and political spectrum agree on certain policy interventions to improve the online information stream, which increasingly shapes what people see on television and hear on the radio. At a time of intense gridlock in Congress and hyperpartisan rhetoric, more consumers agree on potential policy interventions than might be expected, according to Free Press CEO Jessica J. González.

“For instance, a vast majority of Americans oppose racism and other hate online and want social media companies to block such content,” González said. “And even as some on the far right are organizing to ban books about slavery in school districts across the country, 55 percent of all Americans and half of conservatives say that media institutions should acknowledge their histories of racial bias.”

Additionally, a clear majority (60 percent) support increased “funding opportunities so that there is more diversity in who owns and operates independent news and information sources.”

The poll, which surveyed 3,000 respondents, oversampled Black, Latino and AAPI populations and combined the data with information gathered from focus groups in order to capture an “accurate and detailed analysis of the impact of old and new communications technology on people of color,” according to Free Press.

The poll shows that people of color tend to rely on online media for news and information, making them more likely to be the most impacted by Big Tech companies and the lawmakers who decide how to regulate them.

“Even though we’re living through an extremely difficult moment, there are great opportunities to join together for a just and inclusive media and tech ecosystem, one that supports a multiracial democracy,” González said. “Those who seek to divide us and advance authoritarianism have captured far fewer people than it seems, and we must organize together to inspire the changes Americans say they want.”

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