ESG BRIEF

Voters Agree: Political Disinformation Is Real, Omnipresent, and Troubling

Jon Oltsik, Senior Principal Analyst and Fellow; Bill Lundell, Director Syndicated Research

January 2020

86% of registered voters agree that there are individuals and/or groups that are deliberately spreading disinformation in order to influence or disrupt US elections.”

Abstract

The current US political landscape is fraught with extreme partisanship and polarizing positions on just about every issue. These dogmatic views are often influenced by political disinformation—false information spread deliberately to deceive a person or group. Yes, it seems like everyone has come across political disinformation or “fake news,” but just how widespread is this issue and is it really influencing political discourse or elections? To answer these questions, ESG recently conducted a survey of 1,000 registered US voters. The results indicate that political disinformation is a major problem that frustrates voters and leaves them questioning the validity of election results: nearly three-quarters (74%) of registered voters surveyed believe that political disinformation could impact the results of a US presidential election. Clearly, more action is needed from public and private organizations to address this endemic threat to democratic processes and norms.

Overview

In early October 2019, the Enterprise Strategy Group conducted a research survey focused on disinformation and its impact on voters and elections in the United States. For the purposes of this project, the term “disinformation” was defined as false information spread deliberately to deceive a person or group.

Key demographic attributes of the survey respondents:

user
1,000

Registered voters residing in the United States.

male
50%

Male

female
50%

Female

R
34 %
Republican
D
37 %
Democrat
I
37 %
Independent
O
3 %
“Other”
percetage-ratio-1
87%

voted in the 2016 US presidential election.

percentage-ration-2
93%

are certain they will vote in the 2020 US presidential election.

dgi-icon

ESG also gathered demographic information on survey respondentsʼ age, location, ethnicity, income, and education level.

Executive Summary

The data collected as part of this research project reveals:

  • Voters believe that disinformation is real and deliberate. Survey respondents believe that disinformation is based upon the malicious intent to confuse or misguide voters—86% agree that there are individuals and/or groups that are deliberately spreading disinformation in order to influence or disrupt US elections (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Majority of Voters Believe Disinformation Is Being Spread Deliberately to Disrupt US Elections
Do you believe that there are individuals and groups that are deliberately spreading political disinformation in order to influence or disrupt US elections? (Percent of respondents, N=1,000)

86% agree that there are individuals and/or groups that are deliberately spreading disinformation in order to influence or disrupt US elections.

icon1

42% say they are “certain” that they have been exposed to some form of political disinformation in the last 12 months.

  • Political disinformation is omnipresent. Among voters who believe that there are bad actors purposely disseminating disinformation, the vast majority believe they have personally come across disinformation in the last 12 months. Specifically, 42% say they are “certain” that they have been exposed to some form of political disinformation, 28% are “pretty sure” that they have, and 18% say it is “probable” that they have but they arenʼt certain. This indicates the ubiquity of political disinformation, as individuals across all parties, geographies, and ages have encountered it.
icon2

72% of respondents claim to have experienced political disinformation at the presidential level.

  • Political disinformation spans beyond presidential elections. While 72% of respondents claim to have experienced political disinformation at the presidential level, they also report that it is widespread throughout the electoral process. For example, 57% of respondents say they have seen political disinformation in congressional races (i.e., US House of Representatives and Senate), 36% have seen political disinformation in statewide races, and 29% believe they have experienced political disinformation at the local level. Thus, ESGʼs data indicates that political disinformation may be influencing messages and voting at multiple levels, not just nationally.
  • Disinformation is a real issue in the election process. When asked to describe the extent of the effect of disinformation on US elections, 49% classified it as a “major” problem, 34% said that disinformation was a “considerable” problem, and 8% view disinformation as a “minor” problem. Alternatively, only 2% donʼt consider disinformation a problem at all (note: 7% responded “donʼt know/no opinion”).
  • Disinformation tops the list of election-related concerns. All survey respondents were presented with several election-related issues including: access to polling stations, gerrymandering, inconsistent voter ID laws, onerous registration process, ballot manipulation, compromised voting machines, voter fraud, and, of course, disinformation, and were asked to rank each in terms of how significant a problem it is in their opinion. As seen in Figure 2, nearly one-third (30%) of registered voters believe that disinformation is the single biggest voting issue impacting the US electoral process today, nearly twice as many as the next closest concern. This data should make it clear to stakeholders, including elected officials, regulators, media companies, and technology firms, that their constituents, readers, and users view disinformation to be a major concern and will expect both public and private sector institutions to take it seriously.
Figure 2. Disinformation Is Widely Viewed as the Most Significant Election/Voting Issue
Which of the following election/voting issues do you believe is the most significant problem? (Percent of respondents, N=1,000, percent ranking each problem as "#1")
2n

Nearly one-third of registered voters believe that disinformation is the single biggest voting issue impacting the US electoral process today.

  • Disinformation enlists an emotional response. Survey respondents were presented with a list of expressive words and asked which ones best describe how they feel about disinformation in the US political process. The top responses were “frustrated” (45%), “angry” (33%), “disillusioned” (18%), and “skeptical” (18%). Only 8% said that they didnʼt care about disinformation in the US political process.
  • But voters appear to be energized, not discouraged. Despite votersʼ feelings toward disinformation, it is not causing those voters to opt out of the political process. Far from it, as 43% of registered voters say that the current disinformation climate will actually make them more likely to vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Only 5% say that the state of disinformation makes them less likely to vote (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Voters Are Not Being Deterred by Political Disinformation
How do you believe the current state of political disinformation will affect your likelihood of voting in the upcoming 2020 presidential election? (Percent of respondents, N=1,000)

43% of registered voters say that the current disinformation climate will actually make them more likely to vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

  • Social networks should do more to combat disinformation. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “In a democracy, I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.” ESG survey respondents tend to disagree. When asked whether social networking companies like Facebook and Twitter should do more to validate news sources and articles to identify and/or remove disinformation, 55% said they should do “significantly more” and 24% said “somewhat more.” In other words, nearly 80% want more truth-seeking oversight from social networks.
  • The US government should also do more to combat disinformation. In addition to social networks, 76% of respondents believe that the US government should be doing more to address issues around political disinformation. ESG believes this effort should start with funding for public awareness and education on how to spot, report, and prevent the widespread dissemination (often propagated, both knowingly and unknowingly, by voters themselves) of disinformation.
  • Disinformation could alter a US presidential election. What do respondents think about the possibility of disinformation affecting upcoming US presidential races? Disturbingly, nearly three-quarters (74%) of the registered voters surveyed believe that political disinformation could impact the results of a US presidential election (see Figure 4). This may be one reason why only 19% of voters surveyed by ESG believe that the results of a US presidential election are “completely trustworthy” (compared with 43% who believe presidential election results are “mostly trustworthy, ” 27% who say “somewhat trustworthy, ” and 11% who feel that election results are “not at all trustworthy”).
Figure 4. Majority of Voters Believe Disinformation Could Impact the Results of a US Presidential Election
Do you believe that political disinformation could impact the results of a US presidential election? (Percent of respondents, N=1,000)

74% of the registered voters surveyed believe that political disinformation could impact the results of a US presidential election.

The Bigger Truth

In the upcoming weeks and months, ESG will further analyze this data by looking at response patterns by geographic location, gender, ethnicity, age, party affiliation, and other demographic variables. While this analysis will shed further light on political disinformation, the initial survey results are quite disturbing. ESG data indicates that disinformation, as yet another type of cyber-attack campaign, is pervasive, impacting elections on a national and local scale (authorsʼ note: while this survey is restricted in scope to the United States only, it is well documented that political disinformation campaigns are becoming a problem throughout the world). Furthermore, disinformation is viewed as the biggest election issue, causing a negative emotional response and making voters more frustrated and anxious about the overall electoral process.

The good news in our research is that voters appear to be undeterred from participating in the political process. Nevertheless, this research leads us to conclude that disinformation can only be viewed as an existential threat. Our democracy may depend upon collective actions like public education, source/content vetting, and stronger guardrails against foreign governments and special interests.

To learn more about this research, contact us today.

Contact Us