Just in time for the midterm elections. Most Americans know very little about how the U.S. election process works, and this lack of knowledge—coupled with a lack of basic media literacy and critical thinking skills—affects their faith in the election process as well as what they think should be done about America’s misinformation crisis, according to a recent report by Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based critical thinking advocacy group.
Reboot’s report suggests that Americans’ faith in our election system is highly vulnerable to manipulation. Despite social media companies’ recent pledges to tamp down on the conspiracy theories and misinformation that flow on their platforms, the spread of this content hasn’t stopped, and this is particularly true when it comes to election disinformation. A New York Times investigation published details today how hundreds of Republican candidates slated to appear at the ballot box in November have expressed doubt or deliberately spread misinformation surrounding the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, using the lie that the election was rigged as a cudgel for winning the ticket in their respective races.
Sadly, Reboot’s report revealed just how effective these lies can be.
The Reboot survey included a quiz regarding basic election and voting facts. Some questions included: “Is a citizen’s right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution?” “Do political ads have to be truthful?” and “Are elections for President and Congress overseen by the Federal government, which sets voting rules that all states must follow?”
The result? When it comes to elections, most Americans barely get a passing grade. The average score in Reboot’s quiz was 66 percent—or a test grade of a D. Only 14 percent of respondents earned a B grade or better.
Interestingly, the survey suggests that someone’s knowledge about how our elections work is linked to both their confidence in our electoral system as well as the opinion that more needs to be done to combat misinformation. While a third (32 percent) of the survey’s respondents said they’re not confident in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system, those who scored well on the election-fact quiz (a grade of B or better) were almost twice as likely to express confidence in the integrity of our elections and were also more likely to view election misinformation as a serious problem.
Perhaps most troubling: while the survey found that only 28 percent of respondents considered themselves “very confident” in their abilities to identify election misinformation, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents claimed to use their own critical thinking skills when assessing misinformation.
So, what sources do these “critical thinkers” rely on when verifying information? Unfortunately, the report discovered that many Americans turn to outlets that aren’t the best. While more than half (52 percent) claim they check the information that’s reported in the mainstream news, more than 40 percent said this “research” consists of podcasts, YouTubers, newsletters or websites not affiliated with a mainstream news organization. An additional 16 percent said they ask friends and family members, while 13 percent said they ask their connections on social media platforms. Nearly 12 percent admitted that they rarely try to determine the truth of the political information they encounter.
And, as it turns out, members of the self-described “critical thinkers” contingent were also more likely to lack confidence in the integrity of our elections than other respondents and also had a more difficult time determining the truth about the 2020 presidential election.
Finally, while more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the survey’s respondents overall agreed that social media platforms have a responsibility to fight election misinformation, self-described “critical thinkers” were 160 percent more likely to believe that social media companies don’t bear that responsibility.
The Reboot Foundation’s report, “Misinformed & Misled: Uncertainty, Mistrust and Disinformation Frustrate Voters,” was based on a survey of more than 350 U.S. adults in September. The survey was conducted using Amazon’s crowd‐sourcing service Mechanical Turk.