Why do right-leaning Americans believe disinformation?

Posted on September 5, 2023

Recent polling shows that Republican primary voters believe Donald Trump over nearly anyone else. And yet, it’s more complicated than that. They hardly believe what anyone tells them, including Trump. Let’s look at the numbers first and then discuss their meaning.

A recent (August 16-18) CBS News/YouGov poll of “likely Republican primary voters” asked:

“These days, information is everywhere. We’re interested in how you describe where you feel you get information that is true. For each of these general sources, do you feel what they tell you generally is either: true, they are being accurate; mistaken, but they are trying to be accurate; lies, they are intentionally saying false things to mislead.”

Your friends and family         True: 58%, Mistaken: 38%, Lies: 4%
Donald Trump                         True: 53%, Mistaken: 25%, Lies: 22%
Conservative media figures   True: 50%, Mistaken: 34%, Lies: 16%
Religious leaders                     True: 44%, Mistaken: 39%, Lies: 17%
Medical scientists                    True: 32%, Mistaken: 39%, Lies: 29%
Corporate leaders                    True: 16%, Mistaken: 39%, Lies: 45%
Social media influencers        True: 10%, Mistaken: 38%, Lies: 52%
Liberal media figures              True:   8%, Mistaken 16%, Lies: 76%
Joe Biden                                   True: 10%, Mistaken: 11%, Lies: 79%

This is consistent with an earlier (April 3-9) YouGov poll. Looking at answers only from Republicans, “How trustworthy do you rate the news reported by the following media organizations?”

Fox News                               Trustworthy: 55%, Untrustworthy: 15%
Newsmax                               Trustworthy: 42%, Untrustworthy: 13%
One America News              Trustworthy: 36%, Untrustworthy: 11%
Breitbart News                      Trustworthy: 32%, Untrustworthy: 17%
Wall Street Journal              Trustworthy: 38%, Untrustworthy: 29%
PBS                                          Trustworthy: 33%, Untrustworthy: 31%
Associated Press                    Trustworthy: 29%, Untrustworthy: 33%
NBC News                               Trustworthy: 27%, Untrustworthy: 43%
ABC News                                Trustworthy: 29%, Untrustworthy: 45%
CBS News                                Trustworthy: 28%, Untrustworthy: 45%
NPR                                           Trustworthy: 21%, Untrustworthy: 41%
Washington Post                    Trustworthy: 28%, Untrustworthy: 42%
New York Times                     Trustworthy: 22%, Untrustworthy: 52%
MSNBC                                     Trustworthy: 19%, Untrustworthy: 57%
CNN                                           Trustworthy: 25%, Untrustworthy: 61%

In the more recent poll, Donald Trump is nearly the most trusted source of information by Republican primary voters, just after friends and family. He’s considerably more trusted than “religious leaders,” wow! This group doesn’t trust “medical scientists” and believes “corporate leaders” rarely tell the truth.

But look at it another way. Only 53% of Republican primary voters believe that Trump is generally telling the truth while 47% think he is generally mistaken or lying. This is his own base! Half of this group believes “Conservative media figures” are telling the truth and half believe they’re generally mistaken or lying. And 44% believe “Religious leaders” are telling the truth while 56% say they are mistaken or lying. In other words, this group of voters has become enormously cynical. They generally don’t trust anybody to tell them the truth, and the irony is, they’re mostly only listening to right-wing sources that are lying to them.

In the earlier poll, Fox News seems to be trusted by Republicans, and maybe it is. But unlike the more recent poll, this earlier one did not give respondents the chance to say the source was trying to be accurate but was mistaken. One suspects that, given that option, Fox and the other right-wing media outlets wouldn’t do any better than “Conservative media figures” in the later poll.

Here are some conclusions from all this:

  • It is hard to see Republican primary voters deserting Trump when they think he is their best source of information.
  • It is hard to see Republicans changing any significant beliefs in reaction to anything they hear from mainstream leaders or mainstream news sources.
  • Because these voters hardly trust anyone to tell them the truth, it gives them license to believe whatever they want to believe. They are deaf to factual information.

And yet, all of that is mostly relevant to the primaries, not the general elections. In the key swing states and election districts, it would only take a very small shift by typically Republican voters to dramatically alter results in November 2024. So, it is extremely important that 22% of Republican primary voters think that Trump generally lies and 10% think that what Biden says is generally true. Further, half of these voters don’t trust “Conservative media figures” to provide truth while between 20% and 30% say they trust network news, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

With as many as one-in-five conservative voters, truth still has a chance.