With the U.S. presidential election drawing nearer, knowing how and where voters consume information is more important than ever. Especially with the rise of the “fake news” phenomenon making consumers increasingly unwilling to trust various media outlets and institutions. 

Using GWI USA, our newest data set focusing on the U.S. market, we’ll explore how these issues play out among consumers ahead of the election. 

American consumers don’t trust their government. 

The current presidential administration’s tenure has been characterized by mistrust from the start. Since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, U.S. consumers have been particularly skeptical of the information coming out of the government. Our Coronavirus research sheds some light on this. 

At the beginning of April, 42% of people agreed updates from health organizations were the most trustworthy sources of information on the virus. 

Meanwhile, 38% considered news channels on TV trustworthy. Only about one-third said the same of government updates. 

The global picture, by comparison, is much more trusting of the government. Our research shows half of global consumers consider government updates a trustworthy source of COVID-19 news – making it the most trusted source. 

This discrepancy between U.S. and global sentiment is unsurprising for many. And reflecting on how the United States has failed to adequately deal with the outbreak is likely a factor.   

Overall trust in the government, aside from pandemic-related questions, shows clear divisions along party lines. 

Data from GWI USA shows 14% of Americans don’t trust their government at all.

14% of Democrats align with these feelings of distrust, while trust is higher among Republicans – only 9% don’t trust the government at all. 

Meanwhile, nearly a fifth of U.S. consumers who don’t plan to vote in the next election report this feeling of distrust – suggesting there may be a connection between complete distrust in the government and abstention from voting.

Suspicions around the media, and its treatment of the president, are high.

Distrust in the U.S. government falls hand-in-hand with distrust in the media. 

“Fake news” has posed particularly difficult challenges for the American public, and this problem will likely only get worse as we get closer to the election. 

41% of Americans say they don’t trust the media at all, and nearly half report they don’t trust some of the news stories they see online. 

Feelings of distrust differ across party lines, with Republicans generally being less trusting of the media. 37% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans say they don’t trust the media at all, for example, while the split among those who distrust news stories they see online is at 44% among Democrats and 60% among Republicans. 

Interestingly – and very consequentially – swing voters are the most distrusting of all. 48% of swing voters report they don’t trust the media at all, and 64% don’t trust some of the news stories they see online. 

As these are often the most influential group of voters, this finding is concerning as we come closer to the presidential election. It also has huge implications for how candidates, party leaders, and their super PACs try to credibly speak to swing voters. 

Attitudes towards political news coverage also reflect distinct party values – as well as who’s in office. 

While 30% of Democrats feel that major news outlets treat the President fairly, only 7% of Republicans agree. 

Meanwhile, only 27% of Democrats wish news outlets were less biased in their coverage, but 58% of Republicans share this concern over news coverage biases.

If voters feel they can’t trust the media, this opens up many questions this election season. Where will they turn for accurate information on the candidates? And how will they decide to cast their vote amid questions of potential hazards of in-person voting during a pandemic, and controversy around the veracity of mail-in ballots? 

Americans are both reliant on, and suspicious of, social media. 

Social media has transformed into an alternative outlet for political and other news. 

And in some cases, platforms have taken up the mantle of holding both leaders and traditional news outlets to account. Twitter, for example, has been flagging tweets that don’t follow community guidelines and values – including any that may dissuade people from voting.

These actions are key, particularly since the next generation of voters is highly active on social channels and largely relies on them for crucial information when forming their political views.  

But social media as a political news source goes far beyond the youth voter bloc. 

Nearly a third of all American internet users have viewed news clips or articles on social media in the past month.   

Despite increased use of social media for news in recent years, however, 23% of Americans don’t trust social media companies at all. This distrust is most strongly felt by non-voters (28%), followed by Democrats (26%), swing voters (24%) and Republicans (16%). 

Looking at this by age groups, nearly a fifth of 16-34s report they trust social media companies quite a bit – more than any other group. This reaffirms the crucial role social media plays as a news source for young audiences and shows as candidates and their supporters work to get the youth vote out, using social media responsibly will be key.  

However, despite a distrust in social media companies by older generations, these audiences view more news articles on social media than younger groups. This may partially be attributed to younger audiences using social for a myriad of reasons, whereas these platforms have more limited applications – namely maintaining connections to friends/family and the world – for older audiences.

This points to an interesting and important dichotomy that is often at the heart of our relationship with social media. Despite  being more distrustful of social media, older internet users are actively consuming its news content. More actively, even, than the younger user base. For all of the grumbling, social media is a core source of news – and that’s unlikely to change. 

What does this distrust in news and media mean for the election?

The issue of trust, news, and credibility is one to be reckoned with this election cycle – perhaps more than ever. This is a challenge for those who create and disseminate information, in finding the right messages and channels to resonate with their audience. But it’s also a challenge for consumers – where do they turn to for credible information? 

Additionally, the clear divide between political parties, swing voters, and even non-voters in their levels of trust adds complexity. On the one had, Republicans are trusting of the government but not of the media. On the other end of the spectrum, Democrats and younger voters distrust the government, yet are more trusting of both social and traditional media. 

National distrust in the government and media is unlikely to abade as we draw closer to the election. 

And the consequences on voting practices, perceptions of fraud, etc. may be far-reaching. The current debate around mail-in ballots and the USPS tells us that much already. By understanding the unique biases of both our target audiences as well as ourselves, those targeting Americans can enter this election season with a more informed outlook. 

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Written by

Emily is a Strategic Insights Analyst at GWI. She uses GWI data to understand consumers and strategize how brands can better reach their audiences. She also contributes to the Chart of the Week blog series, with a particular interest in social media and anthropology. Before joining GWI, Emily completed a degree in Economics and Global Studies at Colby College in Maine.

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