How people feel about big tech, social media, and news

Introduction

The Center for Growth and Opportunity recently released the findings from its fourth tech poll in two years. This is one of the few surveys covering the public’s attitudes over time towards technologies and technology companies. I covered the highlights of the poll’s findings here.

Over the last two years CGO has found that levels of trust and distrust for the major tech companies have stayed fairly flat, only rising or falling by a couple of points. Zoom is the exception. Since 2020, trust in Zoom has increased by nine points. 

Levels of distrust are highest among those whose political interests are “most of the time” which likely has an impact on the political and media discourse around Big Tech. 

Although the American public has a relatively high distrust of social media companies—Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter, most believe social media companies are justified in their content moderation decisions as well as decisions to remove users and elected officials.

There were some surprising findings. For example, 86% of Americans believe in the value of free speech, but 76% agree that news media outlets should be fined for reporting biased or inaccurate information. We found that 61% agreed social media is the primary means of having important public policy conversations, yet only 24% regularly use social media to do that.

Overall, the CGO found that tech is not a priority for most Americans, most Americans think content moderation decisions are justified, and there is not a consensus to break up Big Tech. 

The CGO was not alone in these findings. 

There were at least three other polls in June and July 2022 from three different organizations: Americans for Prosperity, NetChoice, and the US Chamber of Commerce. 

Despite the independent question drafting, the different survey companies and organizations, there was a remarkable overlap in many of the findings with three that stand out.

Regulating Big Tech is not the top priority

First, regulating technology companies is last on the list of issues Americans want Congress to tackle. 

CGO polling found that 22% of Americans “strongly agreed” that “regulating Big Tech should be an immediate priority for policymakers;” 33% “somewhat agreed.” These numbers seem substantial, but CGO didn’t offer any alternatives to regulating Big Tech. When viewed in tandem with the other polls, which did offer alternatives, this response is nuanced. 

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) fielded a poll focused on health care, but included one question about regulating Big Tech. AFP found that compared to other issues, regulating Big Tech is last on the list. 

Out of 11 listed priorities on which Congress should focus, AFP respondents were asked to rank them 1 through 3. “Going after Big Tech” had a combined 4% priority ranking: 1% listed it as their first priority, another 1% as their second priority, and 2% placed it third priority. By comparison, the AFP poll also asked about “reducing inflation and gas prices,” which had a combined 47% priority ranking with 31% of respondents listing it as their top priority.

NetChoice, a tech industry trade association, conducted a survey focused on technology issues. It found similar results. Out of a list of 14 priority issues, only 1% of respondents said “regulating the technology industry” was the “biggest issue facing the country today.” The top two issues were “the economy and inflation” (60%) and “gun control” (22%).

The US Chamber of Commerce (USCC) poll offered respondents a list of 13 options and asked “Which one issue is the most important for Congress to focus on?” “The economy” (30%) and “inflation” (28%) were the top two results. Only 1% of respondents selected “regulating technology companies.” 

The CGO survey found that more Americans agreed that regulating Big Tech should be a priority for Congress than the other polls for a few reasons. First, the presentation of other options and trade-offs makes a difference. When only asked about Big Tech, without any other options, Americans seem more likely to prioritize it. However, the three other surveys show that when presented with trade-offs other topics quickly obliterate regulation of Big Tech. 

Second, the CGO poll distinguishes answers by party affiliation, which seems to strongly bias responses to this question. According to the CGO poll 47% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats agreed that regulating Big Tech should be a priority—clearly indicating a clear partisan difference. 

Third, 61% of those interested in politics “most of the time,” agreed, while those who indicated they were interested in politics “some of the time” or “now and then” were 48% and 46% respectively. If the most active in politics care about this issue most, then that will drive dialogue compared to other issues.

In other words, it’s the Democrats and the most politically active Americans that are most likely to agree. And when Big Tech regulation is the only option, only half will agree, but if they are given other options, barely any will agree.

Most Americans think content moderation is justified

The second big takeaway from all these polls is that Americans agree social media companies are justified in removing content and users from their platforms. 

On the subject of removing content, CGO respondents think social media companies are justified if

  • They think the content poses a risk to publich health and safety (65%)
  • The think the content is disruptive (57%)

When asked about social media companies’ authority to remove users from their platforms, CGO respondents agree that it’s justified when the users

  • Violate the platform’s rules (70%), even if they are elected officials (61%)
  • Are disruptive (60%), even if they are elected officials (52%)

The NetChoice poll found similar results. When asked, “Do you think that technology companies should be allowed to moderate the content that appears on their platforms if they think that content contains harassment, hate speech, and false information?” 58% agreed the companies should be allowed to moderate content on their platforms. 

Again, the CGO poll offers some context for these responses. Democrats were more likely to agree that social media companies are justified in moderating content and users on their platforms. Republicans were more likely to disagree. 

This is not to say social media companies don’t make mistakes or displease large groups of users with their content moderation decisions. It does strongly indicate that many Americans think social media companies are justified in moderating the  political discourse happening on their platforms.

There is not consensus to break up Big Tech

The third overlapping category has to do with competition or breaking up Big Tech companies. 

In the CGO poll, only 20% completely agreed that “The government should break up big tech companies into smaller companies.” 28% somewhat agreed, which brings the total who agree to about half. 26% were “not sure.” 

In similar demographic differences to the “regulating Big Tech question,” those who are Democrats and more active in politics agreed at a higher rate. When asked if they would be better off if certain companies were broken up, user agreement won out for every company. However, the companies listed included Amazon and Microsoft that have a lot of services, and Zoom and Slack, which are only video call and chat services, respectively. No matter the size, large or small, Americans wanted to break them up. 

This indiscriminate opinion suggests a vindictiveness or lack of understanding about what breaking up a tech company should or could entail. Policymakers should not use this opinion as license to tackle broad antitrust efforts.

The USCC, NetChoice, and CGO all polled on questions related to this issue. Again the results were similar. NetChoice had more options. Only 9% of Americans agreed that “Breaking up big technology companies to make them smaller” should be a priority for Congress when weighed against other tech policy priorities like “protecting children from predators online” (46%). In the same poll 39% of respondents thought breaking up Big Tech companies would make the US technology industry “less competitive against foreign technology companies.” 

The USCC poll found only 4% of Americans agreed that “breaking up large tech companies into smaller ones” should be a priority for Congress, even on a list of only tech policy issues. 16% thought the government should focus on “keeping businesses from getting too big” compared to “lowering prices for consumers” (54%) or “more choices for consumers” (30%).

The Big Tech mismatch is telling

As all these polls indicate, there is clearly a lack of interest in regulating Big Tech platforms. When it comes to content moderation and breaking up these companies, Americans think the social media companies are justified in their decision making and Congress should focus on other things. And yet, in public discourse, there continue to be loud cries for politicians to take on Big Tech. 

The reason for this mismatch with the opinions of Americans may be due to factors indicated in CGO’s polling. Americans with college education and above who pay attention to politics most of the time showed significantly higher agreement with the statement that Congress should prioritize regulating Big Tech. These are the people closer to political and media seats of power.

However, by sheer numbers, this population is a minority among the general American population. According to Pew and US Census data, 37% of Americans aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree and 14% of those people also hold a graduate or professional degree. Of course the size of a population does not mean an issue is right or wrong, but these numbers should put the debate into perspective, particularly for those who focus full time on technology policy.

Policymakers would do well to approach these issues with care. Although most Americans want policymakers to pay attention to tech issues, most think there are more pressing problems than Big Tech. A loud vocal minority should not drive policymaking that could negatively affect an industry sector that billions of people around the world benefit from tremendously. 

Perhaps policymakers are taking this to heart. Despite increasingly loud calls for regulation over the last eight years, no major regulation has been enacted. Of course, future inaction is not guaranteed and in some cases is not the best approach. However, if not by voice but by action, Congress seems to reflect the public’s opinion that there are other more pressing issues.

Overwhelmingly, as all this polling indicates, regulating Big Tech does not represent the wants of the majority of Americans.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.

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