casual-couch-fake-1327218

pexels.com

  • Over 45% struggled to tell the difference between facts and statements of opinion.
  • Partisan bias appeared to be a major factor clouding people’s decisions.
  • For political topics, lack of civics knowledge also caused people to struggle.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With many people’s judgments clouded by partisan bias, troubling new research finds many Americans struggle to distinguish facts from opinions in their 24-hour news cycles. Study authors from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign say this worrisome trend potentially holds grave implications for civic discourse in the United States. On an individual level, this research suggests the average American is ill equipped to navigate the nonstop wave of political information (and possibly misinformation) they receive on a daily basis.

“There’s a huge amount of research on misinformation. But what we found is that, even before we get to the stage of labeling something misinformation, people often have trouble discerning the difference between statements of fact and opinion,” says study co-author Jeffery J. Mondak, a professor of political science and the James M. Benson Chair in Public Issues and Civic Leadership at Illinois, in a university release.

“We also see a lot of research on misinformation that comes at the problem from the angle of, ‘How are we doing in terms of playing whack-a-mole with misinformation? Are we able to fact check them and rebut these claims?’ Well, that isn’t necessarily a useful way of getting at the root cause of the problem,” adds Matthew Mettler, a U. of I. graduate student and co-author of the study.

The study focused on assessing whether Americans can differentiate statements of fact (2 + 2 = 4) versus statements of opinion (“Green is the most beautiful color”). The research team placed a particular emphasis on political statements.

Researchers asked study participants to categorize 12 statements regarding current events as either statements of fact or statements of opinion. Rather surprisingly, 45.7 percent of respondents did as badly as if they had flipped a coin to make a decision.

“What we’re showing here is that people have trouble distinguishing factual claims from opinion, and if we don’t have this shared sense of reality, then standard journalistic fact-checking – which is more curative than preventative – is not going to be a productive way of defanging misinformation,” Prof. Mondak explains. “How can you have productive discourse about issues if you’re not only disagreeing on a basic set of facts, but you’re also disagreeing on the more fundamental nature of what a fact itself is?”

Fake News on smartphone
45.7 percent of respondents did as badly as if they had flipped a coin to make the decision between facts and opinions. (© georgejmclittle – stock.adobe.com)

Four factors showed an association with modest improvements in success at differentiating between fact and opinion: civics knowledge, current events knowledge, education, and cognitive ability. Importantly, however, partisan bias played a major role as a root cause of error.

“As partisan political views grow more polarized, Democrats and Republicans both tend to construct an alternate reality in which they report that their side has marshaled the facts and the other side merely has opinions,” Prof. Mondak explains.

Unbiased error, such as mistakes resulting from random guessing, decreased due to the four factors. Errors linked to partisan bias, meanwhile, didn’t budge.

“It’s not merely the case that there were a lot of incorrect responses, but that many of the errors were not random,” Prof. Mondak says. “They were systematic errors because many respondents formed their answers to fit their partisan narrative. For example, the statement ‘President Barack Obama was born in the U.S.’ is a statement of fact that could be incorrectly redefined as a statement of opinion, depending on your partisan lens.”

“Although people with greater political sophistication were better at distinguishing fact from opinion, affective partisan polarization tends to promote systematic partisan error,” Mettler notes. “It distorts people’s capacity to reason their way through these statements.”

Besides indicating Americans are resistant to corrections of misinformation, this research suggests they’re vulnerable to manipulation as well.

“Our analyses show that the problem of misinformation includes an underappreciated dimension in that people do not just disagree on the facts, they also disagree on the more fundamental matter of what facts are,” Prof. Mondak explains. “The results also suggest that faulty fact-opinion differentiation can severely complicate the correction of misinformation because a consensus of ‘We can agree to disagree’ can emerge even for questions of indisputable fact. Well, you can’t just ‘Agree to disagree’ that 2 + 2 = 22.”

“It’s possible that news media can help improve fact-opinion differentiation by highlighting the distinction between statements of fact and statements of opinion in their stories or broadcasts. But the trend nowadays, especially on cable news, is more of a blurring of opinion and fact.”

Study authors say this work is especially concerning when placed within the context of the 2024 presidential election cycle.

“If you can’t tell if somebody is proposing a statement of fact versus a statement of opinion, you’re doomed as an information consumer,” Prof. Mondak concludes. “It signals a fundamental breakdown in the possibility of meaningful communication between people and political elites, or between journalists and the public.”

The study is published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

About John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

Our Editorial Process

StudyFinds publishes digestible, agenda-free, transparent research summaries that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. We do not agree nor disagree with any of the studies we post, rather, we encourage our readers to debate the veracity of the findings themselves. All articles published on StudyFinds are vetted by our editors prior to publication and include links back to the source or corresponding journal article, if possible.

Our Editorial Team

Steve Fink

Editor-in-Chief

Chris Melore

Editor

Sophia Naughton

Associate Editor

25 Comments

  1. complicated says:

    Might be because the labelling of something as “misinformation” could itself be an opinion.

  2. yvonne heuter says:

    This is because the media is now made up of activists and not journalists, and they tell lies, half truths, and lie by omission; anything to support their political agenda.

    1. Cogitp says:

      Yvonne Heuter, what you wrote is 100% descriptive of Fox (so-called) News. The people on their evening broadcasts make no effort to conceal their bias, openly engaging in snide innuendo.

  3. Objective Observer says:

    Is it on FOX News? Then it’s opinion. Did Tucker Carlson say it? Then it’s opinion.

  4. Eric Olsen says:

    Here is a “conversation” with Co-pilot, Microsoft’s AI assistant:

    Can Men Get Pregnant?
    Copilot
    Yes, it’s possible for men to become pregnant and give birth to children of their own. In fact, it’s probably a lot more common than you might think.

    Are there female men?
    Copilot
    Certainly! Let’s explore the concept of female men and the fascinating ways it has been portrayed:

    This is 2 + 2 equals what ever you feel is “your truth.”

    Then there is truth according to Donald Trump. We are in trouble, fellow Americans.

  5. George Reeves says:

    Without revealing the questions this study is useless. What statements of facts were used? For example, we all saw and there was sworn testimony that there was a lot of illegal ballot handling and counting in 2020. The election was so botched that no rational person can be sure the reported vote was the actual will of the voters. So, is the statement “Biden won in 2020” a fact or someone’s opinion based upon belief? It is a certainty that many people would be on either side.

    1. Jay Y says:

      @George;

      So you think it’s a fact the 2020 election was stolen based on people who swore that it was? Now you swear that it was. Thanks for proving the article to be correct, in that you are another one of the 45% that cannot tell the difference between propaganda, fake news, fiction and facts.

    2. Walt says:

      Excellent response. We’re lied to constantly and live in a country and time when a, supposed, normal rational adult can’t even answer the question: “What is a woman?”

      Is that an opinion or a fact?

      It’s amusing and fun watching society destroy itself with a new level and flavor of stupidity. Just ignore all of it, have a laugh and you’ll be better off mentally and happier.

      1. Andrew Gold says:

        It is assumed people understand the difference between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion, but as this study shows many people cannot differentiate. Couple that with confirmation bias and it’s no wonder people are thinking and saying crazy stuff.

    3. JoeH says:

      It takes two clicks to get to the study. If you read the article and paid attention to the highlighted portions, you would have been able to get to this yourself, but based on the rest of your response I see little possibility of it having an impact in what I will charitably characterize as your “thinking.” Anyone who thinks there was credible evidence of extensive fraud in the election hasn’t been
      paying attention to
      much beyond Fox News or some other media source that’s even worse.
      https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/fact-opinion-differentiation/

    4. Cogito says:

      George, sworn testimony is not necessarily accurate testimony, which is one reason that cross examination is a mandatory part of evidentiary proceedings. Sworn testimony is often demonstrated to be mistaken.
      If, despite the overwhelming evidence, you believe that the 2020 election was “stolen” how do you explain that your belief was rejected by over 60 courts, including 8 courts presided over by Trump appointed judges? Yes, that is a FACT.
      Facts are not established by popularity contests; they are established by rational, neutral examination. As a wise man said “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but nobody is entitled to their own facts.”

    5. Joe Church says:

      You present a good point. Transparency to the questions and answers would allow us to cross-study how fair the study was. But to your statement that the election was so botched, it’s another statement that generalizes a result without defining where and how exactly it was botched. Lawsuit after lawsuit in only the red states was dismissed. You’re emphasizing the article’s point around partisan opinionn versus proven math.

  6. jack mccready says:

    Easy. If it’s reported by the news media, it’s opinion. End of story.

    1. Opiniated says:

      YUP – or more accurately, twisted Liberal opinion!

    2. Tom Gochenour says:

      If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it’s a duck. A duck doesn’t think it’s a dog. If you don’t believe me just ask it.

    3. Dan says:

      Or perhaps more accurately, a purposely crafted LIE.
      If the media can lie to the people without penalty,
      why would you believe the “history” that’s ALSO been foisted on you

  7. Ice Star says:

    After Durham showed that Obama spied on candidate Trump.

    Obama knew the accusation of Russian collusion was false before the 2016 election but lied about it anyway.

    Russian Collusion was false, yet most on the Left still push it

  8. Eric Olsen says:

    Quite incredible that my comment about men getting prqnt was moderated and censored. I guess it is just a fact now. Sorry biology. You lose.

  9. Eric Olsen says:

    Here is a generic comment to see if it is “moderated.” What a great article. Way to go, John. Pulitzer Prize, maybe?

  10. Edward Ohlbaum says:

    The Information Age has given everyone the ability to “spread the word” whether it is fact or opinion or a mix of both. Suffice it to say “Which stories can be trusted and which cannot?” The media? The U.S. Constitution? The Old and New Testaments of the Bible? We should know more about those who tell or write the stories. Do they have a vested interest? Did they make an attempt to be objective? Even the replies to this article seem to mix up fact with opinion.

  11. CH says:

    Most people don’t know that the long form birth certificate that the Obama White House issued to the public and is still available for download from the official .gov website is an easily-provable forgery.

    Search “Obama long form birth certificate whitehouse.gov”, select the obamawhitehouse.archives.gov page, find the link a couple paragraphs down to the long form pdf download, open that file in Adobe Illustrator, and investigate the layers you can pull apart that irrefutably proves this to be an amateur mosaic of mashed-together elements.

    I don’t know where Obama was born, but I do know the so-called proof offered that he was born in Hawaii is a sloppy fake so bad that anyone can determine it first-hand. And if we have been given no real evidence, only a fugazi placeholder that the establishment has pretended to agree is real and leaves up to mock us, then it remains an open question, not a fact and not an opinion. We simply don’t have an answer, and that’s a third category of knowledge that this article doesn’t even offer as an option. That in itself is a manipulation of perception, that there must be a binary choice.

    So, this is propaganda about propaganda. Disinformation program complete, Mr. Casey.

  12. Tom says:

    This should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. The media have been working hard to blur the lines between fact and opinion for years now on a whole range of issues, not just politics. Science, history, and culture have all undergone relativistic reinterpretation. It started in university faculty lounges, spread throughout academia down to the grade school level, and has been picked up by a media more interested in catering to niche markets than reporting on facts. The general public tunes in to what they expect to hear, not what actually is happening in the world.

  13. Jimbo from Irmo says:

    Do you know “The Iron Law of fingerpointing”?

    When you “point the finger” at someone, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.

    That certainly applies to the article, and what it reports…

    The Root Cause is in the Public School system. Were *you* educated there? Or talked-to about beLIEfs and opinions? The MSM is just carrying the torch.

    Like it or not, YOU are responsible for what you let into your own head. Be very, very careful…

  14. ken says:

    since 2009 we have been living under the “woke-revolution” with its DEI ideology being imposed upon “woke-america” and its citizenry, of course to be a “good citizen” now you must be a “woke-citizen” unable to completely dominate the newsmedia landscape, (we do have that thing called the first amendment) “opposition” to “wokeness” and its DEI ideology is permitted (from the “evil-rightwingers” of course) so this of course explains both the term “mis-information” and similar (those who dare to counter the “woke” and DEI ideology) and this supposed “confusion” (unfortunately to the leftists not everyone as yet is onboard with the “woke-revolution”)

  15. Edward says:

    Most all information comes through filters such as media, entertainment and the like. I take virtually all of that with a grain of salt. Much better to examine someone’s attitude about things by asking worldview questions, which get at issues of right and wrong. Is it right or wrong to cross a country’s border illegally? Is it right or wrong to loot a business during a riot? Is it right or wrong to rob Peter in order to pay Paul? You get a taste for your alignment to a person’s value system this way, and don’t have to depend on trusting the news sources for information. If I see someone’s value system is screwed up, I’m not going to trust their information.