fake news

First, there was “big league” (“bigly?”). Next came the bedeviling “covfefe,” a term Sean Spicer assured reporters possessed a meaning known only to the president and a few confidants. More recently, “Rocket Man” made its debut in the White House parlance and even merited use at the United Nations.   

Yet no term has flourished in the era of Trump quite like “fake news,” which the president has employed dozens of times on Twitter since late 2016. To be fair, he’s not the only one fond of the phrase: Many on the left have used the term to describe specious stories spread by Russian operatives to damage Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

Indeed, depending on where they stand on the political spectrum, Americans are increasingly suspicious of news from one group of outlets or another. Perhaps Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the term “alternative facts” is more apt than we care to admit. Americans are increasingly inclined to trust their own news sources implicitly and dismiss the rest as malicious or inept.

In this project, we set out to reveal which news outlets Americans trust most, and which they consign to the fake news category. Going further, we studied how many citizens actually believe theories that have been roundly debunked. Our findings demonstrate just how polarized the state of news is in the present, and how facts are an increasingly endangered species in our discourse. Keep reading to see what we learned.

Outlets Under Suspicion

media perception

Despite President Trump’s relentless criticism of the “MSM” (mainstream media), it was conservative outlets that struggled most to achieve credibility in the eyes of our participants. Helmed once again by Steve Bannon, Breitbart was rated “fake news” by no fewer than 44.9 percent of respondents, followed closely by Fox News, Infowars, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. The least believed publication with a more liberal orientation was Buzzfeed, which might be concerned by its lack of trust among millennials – a demographic the site has spent considerable time courting.

CNN’s reputation has also apparently suffered a bit after being singled out by President Trump and his supporters for its unfavorable coverage. The network so infuriated Trump fans in 2016 that “CNN sucks” chants abounded at their rallies. Similarly, 1 in 10 respondents identified The New York Times as fake. President Trump’s preferred insult for the outlet is “failing,” although his candidacy has actually buoyed the paper’s financial fortunes.

Fool Me Once …

fooled by fake news

In a heartening display of humility, many of our participants admitted they feared they’d been duped by fake news before. In fact, nearly 56 percent of Republicans said they had probably or definitely been deceived, and over 46 percent of Democrats said the same. These responses prompt an interesting question, though: Are Americans referring to outlets of their own political persuasion, or do they recall a time they felt tricked by the other side?

Gen Xers were most likely to feel they had been prey to fake news, while millennials expressed the most confidence in their own abilities to avoid deception. Perhaps they judge their success by their cynicism. Recent evidence suggests media trust among young Americans is at a historical low.  

The Culprit in Office?

which generation falls for fake news the most?

In the battle to distinguish between true and false coverage, many Americans feel they have a powerful enemy: the executive branch. In fact, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said the White House was serving fake news, an opinion likely furthered by dubious claims advanced by Sean Spicer or Trump’s insistence that widespread voter fraud took place. Even 1 in 5 Republicans said they felt the president’s team was giving voice to suspect information.

While the majority in every generation thought the White House was fudging facts, baby boomers were the most critical. That’s an interesting metric in light of the demographic groups who favored President Trump most heavily in November. Older voters supported the president by the widest margin, playing a key role in his eventual election.

Conspiracy and Coverage

which theories do americans believe in?

When we correlated belief in unfounded conspiracies with respondents’ favorite news outlets, an interesting mix of outlets emerged. For instance, lovers of Fox News were most susceptible to trusting in the Obama birther belief, Sandy Hook hoax, and Clinton murder myths (though the network is currently embroiled in a lawsuit involving the specious Clinton story). Yet fans of BBC and PBS NewsHour were also among the most likely to believe these false stories – perhaps an indication that these outlets resisted covering the conspiracies at all, let along debunking them.

BBC devotees were also most likely to believe in climate change and the charge that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Perhaps these statistics should be expected from an organization that has frequently been criticized for liberal bias. Surprisingly, CNN viewers were most likely to believe that vaccines were linked to autism, a myth the network has thoroughly repudiated.

Conspiracy Beliefs by Party

topics of debate between political parties

Predictably, many of the beliefs we put to our participants differed dramatically along partisan lines. More than half of Democrats, for instance, thought the president’s campaign colluded with Russians, whereas less than 1 in 5 Republicans believed in climate change. On the other hand, only a small minority of both parties believed in arguably our most reviled myth: that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax.

Yet, compelling differences among generations were also evident. Over a third of millennials believed the collusion theory, more than twice the rate among Gen Xers and five times that of Baby Boomers. Millennials were also far more likely than older respondents to affirm the truth of climate change. Meanwhile, all generations proved somewhat susceptible to the myth of vaccines causing autism, though Gen Xers were particularly likely to believe it. Perhaps this is a reflection of the timing of the myth’s public introduction, which many tie to a 1998 medical journal report.

The Truth Will Triumph?

As our results make clear, America’s media cynicism is a double-edged sword. While it equips us to assess information critically, it also prevents us from broadening our perspectives beyond the sources we already entrust. Just as our findings show that we are willing to interrogate suspect claims, our suspicion of institutions fuels lingering myths, casting their debunking into doubt.

In this landscape of uncertainty, a well-informed citizen is more valuable than ever, and education can play a primary role in accomplishing that ideal. At StudySoup.com, we’re passionate about seeing you succeed in school, providing resources tailored to the exact classes you’re taking. Our guides will never leave you questioning what’s true next time you sit down to take a test.


We surveyed over 1,000 Americans about their media preferences and opinions on a range of controversial theories. We then indexed their results against self-reported demographic information and their stated political leanings to produce the findings presented above.

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