A new study by Pew Research Center surveyed 5,035 U.S adults to examine whether the general public could recognize statements from the news as factual or as an opinion. It found that this task was a “challenge,” as only 26% of all adults could identify all of the factual statements and only 35% could identify all of the opinion statements. The study reported how a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three out of five statements in each set. Additionally, the study found that around one-quarter of Americans got most or all of them wrong.
Certain groups of Americans performed better in the study over others. For example, Americans with high political awareness, those who are digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media were able to identify which statements were factual versus opinions more often.
Additionally, the study says, “Republicans and Democrats are more likely to think that news statements are factual when they appeal to their side-even if they are opinions.” For example, the factual statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States” was correctly identified by 89% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans. However, the opinion statement “Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S economy” was identified as factual by 37% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans.
The study went a step beyond just asking surveyors to identify which statements were factual versus opinions, but also asked if they disagreed with the statement. The study concluded that, “when Americans see a factual statement, they overwhelmingly believe it to be accurate,” and also that, “Americans also tend to disagree with factual statements they incorrectly label as opinions.”
This study is especially pertinent in today’s fast-paced and complex information environment because of the growing problem of ‘fake news’ in the U.S. The topic of fake news became especially relevant after the 2016 presidential election. Whether or not ‘fake news’ influenced the election is debated heavily among researchers, however the inability to identify what is fake news, in other words, what is not factual, is still a growing issue. An article by NPR explained more about the consequences of believing fake news. It reports how one study from Yale University found that the more people were exposed to a fake news statement, the more they believed it.
NPR elaborated on that finding, writing the following:
“That’s good news for fake news writers and the creators of Russian bots and hypothetical 400-lb. hackers in New Jersey. If it’s true that showing people the same headline multiple times makes them believe it, all fake news purveyors need to do is be persistent-and hope that they continue to have platforms like Facebook for posting the things they made up.”