Most Americans think Facebook hurts democracy and free speech more than it helps, says poll

Finding comes as big tech finds itself under mounting scrutiny

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Wednesday 28 February 2018 17:25 GMT
A majority of Americans believe the government is not doing enough to regulate big tech
A majority of Americans believe the government is not doing enough to regulate big tech (Getty)

A majority of Americans believe social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook hurt free speech and democracy more than they help, according to a new survey.

In a finding that underscores a considerable shift in public opinion following revelations about the way Russia allegedly used platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to try and interfere in the 2016 election, the poll also suggests a majority of Americans want major technology firms regulated by the government.

The poll found the belief the government was not doing enough to regulate Silicon Valley leapt from 40 per cent in November to 55 today. And while the poll found Democrats were the most anxious, levels of concern were reasonably similar among Republicans and independents.

“That’s a seismic shift in the public’s perception of Silicon Valley over a short period of time,” said an article by the Axios news site, which commissioned the poll in conjunction with SurveyMonkey.

“It shows how worried Americans are about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but it also reflects a growing anxiety about the potentially addictive nature of some of the tech companies’ products, as well as the relentless spread of fake news on their platforms.”

Concern about the lack of regulation of major technology firms has been a mounting issue, following the seemingly never-ending growth an ambition of companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google. That concern has fuelled in part by some some of the firms’ extraordinary efforts to limit their taxation, about the lack of diversity within Silicon Valley, and controversies such as the one last August when Google fired an engineer who had written and posted a ten-page memo arguing for less concern about gender inequality in the workplace.

Billionaire investor George Soros calls more stringent regulations for monopolies like Google and Facebook

Last October, in what was perhaps the first effort by Congress to regulate big technology firms, which spend millions of dollars lobbying the government.

Republican John McCain and two Democratic unveiled a bill that would force Facebook, Google and others to disclose who is purchasing online political advertising.

When releasing the first legislative response to revelations that Russians used tech platforms to interfere in the 2016 election, the senators said their bill was intended to defend the bedrock of the US's political system.

During a news conference, the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill – senators Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner – said they were angry at how foreign actors had been able to take advantage of loopholes in current laws to threaten the integrity of the US election system.

“Our entire democracy was founded on the simple idea that the people in our country should be self-governing,” Ms Klobuchar said.

“Now 240 years later, our democracy is at risk. Russia attacked our elections, and they and other foreign powers and interests will continue to divide our country if we don’t act now.

Mike Elgan, a Silicon Valley-based tech journalist told The Independent he believed the public was turning against the industry for several reasons.

“The backlash is a backlash only in contrast to an older sentiment, which is general optimism about tech. In the past, Silicon Valley was going to put a computer on our desks, a phone in our pockets and, eventually, connect us all with fun social networks. The public not only believed these changes were generally good, they also felt they understood them,” he said.

He said he believed the level of the backlash was already having an impact. “You see Facebook's numbers dropping, smartphone sales are leveling off, etc. It’s just the beginning, but tech is losing its lustre,” he added.

The Axios survey found that while 82 per cent of Americans believed that technology has an overall positive effect on society, 55 per cent thought special media hurt democracy and free speech, more than it helped it.

Around 80 per cent blamed technology companies for not doing more to safeguard their platforms against election interference.

Last week, Barack Obama told a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that firms such as Facebook and Google needed to have a conversation about their business models and recognise they were both “a public good and a commercial enterprise”.

“We have to have serious conversation about what are the business models, the algorithms, (and) the mechanics whereby we can create more of a common conversation and that cannot just be a commercially driven conversation,” he said.

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, has indicted 13 Russians and outlined details of the way they sought to use social media to post fake news and divisive opinions during and after the election.

Charles Cooper, who has been writing about technology and business for three decades, said he believed it may not be wise to attach too much value to a single poll. He said previous news cycles, whether it was the alleged role of computer games in inspiring the Columbine massacre shooters or the controversy over net neutrality, pushed issues over technology to the top of the agenda, only to see them subsequently fade.

“We’re just a very fickle nation with a very short attention span,” he said.

“Tech issues can get complicated and most people have neither the time nor the inclination to dig very deep, I’m afraid.”

Denise Howell, a writer and intellectual property and technology lawyer based in Newport Beach, California, said firms such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo had taken some steps to counter public concern, though probably not enough to prevent government regulation.

“They have not sufficiently anticipated the scope and potential impact of public awareness and outrage. They could and should have done a better job of managing their platforms and public expectations,” she said.

“Had they done so, the public and its elected representatives might be more inclined to take a hands-off approach, conclude that market forces are sufficient checks on concerning policies and practices, and leave the regulatory landscape alone.”

She added: “It behooves Silicon Valley to get out in front of this policy and public relations battle effectively and immediately. If it does not, lawmakers will inevitably weigh in to address their constituents' concerns.

“Lawmakers historically have demonstrated an imperfect understanding of the interplay between the internet and public interest, and may unwittingly pass knee-jerk, apple-polishing measures that fail to foresee their collateral damage.”

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