Poll: Americans think US politicians, social media spread misinformation more than foreign governments

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Tech giants may rely more on European Union laws than U.S. laws to police what happens on their sites.

The majority of Americans believe U.S. politicians and social media companies spread misinformation online more than China, Russia or other foreign governments, a poll released Friday found.  

According to a poll carried out by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs and the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute, around three-quarters of respondents believe that politicians, social media companies and social media users are responsible for spreading misinformation.  

By comparison, only 48 percent of respondents saw the U.S. government as responsible for spreading misinformation, and just over half saw the Russian and Chinese governments as culpable for this issue. Even less, around 40 percent, saw the Iranian government and other nations as responsible for misinformation online.  

Splits on the issue are present however, with respondents identifying as Republican twice as likely than those identifying as Democrats to hold the U.S. government accountable for misinformation, and those over the age of 45 more likely to believe a foreign government is responsible.  

“Americans are more likely to blame U.S. politicians, social media companies, and social media users for the spread of misinformation than foreign governments,” Sheila Kohanteb, the executive director of external relations at the Pearson Institute, said in a statement. “The results show that the public believes the spread of misinformation is an issue that the American government, companies, and individuals all need to try to address.”  

The poll was conducted over a week in September, with just over 1,000 U.S. adults responding through phone calls and online interviews. 

It found that while almost all respondents see the spread of misinformation as a problem, and around three-quarters were concerned about being exposed to misinformation, more than half were not concerned with the idea they had personally spread misinformation online.  

“There is a significant bipartisan consensus among the American public that the spread of misinformation is a problem,” Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center, said in a separate statement. “The study illustrates that many Americans believe the spread of misinformation is an issue that is directly impacting them, their friends, and their families.”

Both disinformation and misinformation have increasingly become a major national concern in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, with false information online fueling divides and pushing false narratives.

The governments of China, Russia, and Iran have been found to have spread disinformation involving the pandemic, elections and other sensitive issues. 

The new findings were released a month after AP-NORC carried out a separate poll centered on surveillance and extremism. According to the earlier poll, carried out in August, 75 percent of respondents said they were extremely concerned or very concerned about direct threats to the nation from the spread of misinformation, more so than issues including cyberattacks and domestic extremism. 

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