Apr 7, 2017 - Economy

Americans trust their friends, not media or government

The volatile relationship between the Administration and the news media, combined with the prevalence of fake news and misleading content online, is causing Americans to feel more confused about who and what to believe than ever before.

Trust in institutions at historic low: A 2016 Gallup poll ranks the least-trusted U.S. institutions. Not surprisingly, television, newspapers, big business and Congress all rank at the bottom of the list with less than 10% of Americans having a great deal of confidence in those institutions.

Data: Gallup; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

Lack of trust in media is particularly prevalent among Republicans, with 86% of conservatives saying they no longer trust the media, which Gallup says is easily the lowest confidence level among Republicans in 20 years.

  • Our consumption habits fuel the problem: Today, 62% of Americans say they get their news from social media, and primarily from Facebook, even though an American Press Institute study finds people are least likely to trust Facebook "a great deal" compared to all other social platforms. Facebook has become such a dominant part of news discovery and distribution that 10% of respondents for a Pew survey last month said they believed Facebook was the news source of articles they read on Facebook, not the news outlets themselves. The same problem exists on Twitter. A Columbia University study found that Americans share 60% of news on Twitter without reading the articles linked to, which is problematic considering that a recent study by Oxford Internet Institute (OII) found that nearly half of political news content that's tweeted is fake. Moreover, nearly a quarter of Americans admit to sharing fake news on Facebook, and more than half of those people say they do so knowingly.

Political institutions make it hard to be trusted: Earlier this month, a conservative group backing a Virginia gubernatorial candidate altered the headline of a local newspaper to misrepresent the truth about an opposing candidate's position, causing the post to go viral. An indictment of former Congressman Steve Stockman, R-Texas, revealed that a major conservative political donor wrote a check for over $450,000 to to support mailing a fake newspaper to voters, in an effort to spread fake news about the candidate's primary opponent, Sen. John Cornyn. The left is no better. Elon University media professor and researcher John Albright found that the left-leaning media watchdog group Media Matters continuously linked to fake news sources when writing oppositional stories about the right. Media Matters says it has recently adopted a "no follow" practice to ensure readers that when they have linked to fake news or extremist sites in the past, it has been to expose and debunk them, not to promote them. President Trump and his Administration have several times stated false information as facts, and have tried to discredit some of the largest news outlets as being "fake news," for reporting information that doesn't sit well with the Administration. Case in point:

Why it matters: Declining trust in the media, politics and institutions are causing Americans to seek information from unconventional sources. A recent YouGov marketing research firm survey found that Americans' trust in ads is higher than trust in news. A Digital Content Next study found that nearly 75% of consumers access more information now that their favorite brands are on social media. Above all, Americans trust each other. The American Press Institute found that people are most likely to share a news article that comes from a family member or friend than a brand or news outlet.

This piece has been updated to include comment from Media Matters.

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