Majority of Britons Think Offensive Statements Cause Genuine Harm and Support Government Regulation of Social Media Companies

July 22, 2021
R&WS Research Team
Lifestyle and Society | Media & Press | Science & Technology | Social Media
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In the aftermath of racist abuse aimed at England players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka following England’s defeat at the Euro 2020 final against Italy, the Government has announced it will work with football authorities and tech companies to tackle online abuse of footballers ahead of its Online Safety Bill. With this context, the latest research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies looks at what the British public thinks about harmful and offensive social media content, as well as the regulation of social media companies by the Government.

Reflecting the seriousness of the issue at hand, we find that 73% of Britons agree that statements that are offensive cause genuine harm—including 37% who agree strongly. This view is held by a strong majority of all age groups, and only 9% of respondents overall disagree that offensive statements cause genuine harm, while 17% neither agree nor disagree. This result also demonstrates that the distinction between offensive and harmful content has become less salient for the public. 

Moreover, underscoring public concern over the impact that such statements may have, 62% say they would support social media companies censoring content that they deem sexist, homophobic, or racist, including 32% who say they would strongly support it. Conversely, 18% of respondents would oppose social media companies doing so, and 17% would neither support nor oppose it. Again, support is high across all age groups. 

Amidst strong support for stricter action against offensive content, the public is split on who should face legal action if racist and abusive comments are made on social media. Overall, 42% think both the individuals who write racist and abusive comments and the social media companies who host them should face legal action, while 41% think only the individuals who write them should face legal action. A much lower proportion of 8% say only the social media companies who host them, and 4% think nobody should face legal action over racist and abusive comments.

We observe clear differences in opinion regarding the question of legal action according to respondents’ age. For instance, while 50% of respondents aged 65 and older think both the individuals who write racist and abusive comments and the social media companies that host them should face legal action, a lower proportion of 35% of respondents aged 18 to 24 share this view. At 18% and 15%, respectively, 18-to-24-year-olds and 25-to-34-year-olds are more likely than older respondents to say that only the social media companies who host such comments should face legal action, compared to just 3% of respondents aged 55 to 64 and 5% of respondents aged 65 and above. 

The anonymity of many social media platforms is often seen as a facilitating factor for online hate speech, with the relative lack of identity verification making it easier for users to post offensive or abusive content online without fearing repercussions, whether legal or social, in their offline lives. The recent racial abuse of England players has renewed calls for mandatory ID verification on social media to hold individuals accountable for posting hateful content.

Indeed, pointing to widespread support for this view, two-thirds (65%) of Britons say they would support banning anonymity for social media accounts, including 36% who express their strong support. A further 12% of respondents would oppose banning anonymity for social media accounts, and 16% say they would neither support nor oppose such a measure. 

While majorities of all age groups would support banning anonymity for social media accounts, the degree of support for such a measure increases with age: 52% of 18-to-24-year-olds would support banning social media anonymity, compared to 71% of 55-to-64-year-olds and 69% of those aged 65 and over. 

Enforcing an anonymity ban for social media accounts would likely necessitate some form of regulatory intervention, either by the Government or by social media companies themselves. We observe a significant degree of support for Government regulation of social media companies. At the same time, however, views on the exact form and extent that such regulation should take differ, notably as a function of respondents’ age.

Overall, more than half (55%) of the public says they would support social media companies being regulated by the Government. 19% would oppose the Government’s regulation of social media companies, and 22% would neither support nor oppose it. This level of support for Government regulation appears relatively stable over time: in July 2020, for instance, 54% of respondents said they would support social media companies being regulated by the Government, while more recent polling from May 2021 showed 53% would support the idea and 19% would oppose it. 

Despite steady support overall, our data shows significant differences between age groups. Whereas 67% of respondents aged 65 and over would support social media companies being regulated by the Government, a much lower proportion of 35% of 18-to-24-year-olds say the same. In addition, 2019 Conservative voters (71%) are significantly more likely than 2019 Labour voters (47%) to support Government regulation of social media companies, although this difference may partially be explained by the fact that the average Conservative voter is older than the average Labour voter.

More generally, three-quarters (75%) of Britons agree with a statement suggesting that social media companies are publishers and should be subject to the same regulations as newspapers and broadcasters, with high support across all age groups. Only 7% of respondents disagree, and 14% neither agree nor disagree. 

Yet, a plurality of 39% of Britons also agree with a different statement suggesting that social media companies should be able to set their own content removal guidelines, as opposed to the Government setting such guidelines. 29% neither agree nor disagree, and 24% disagree. Again, these attitudes have remained stable over time. In July 2020, 40% agreed that social media companies should be able to set their own content removal guidelines, and 39% agreed in May 2021. These findings suggest that, despite a base level of support for Government regulation of social media companies, there may be differences in public opinion when it comes to the precise regulatory measures Britons deem appropriate. Moreover, there may be a lack of widespread understanding regarding the fact that newspapers and broadcasters are currently subjected to a higher degree of regulation than social media companies. 

On the issue of content removal guidelines, we again observe important differences between age groups. Whereas 54% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 60% of 25-to-34-year-olds think social media companies should be able to set their own content removal guidelines, only 28% of respondents aged 55 to 64 and 21% of respondents aged 65 and over think so. As such, younger respondents—who tend to use social media the most—appear to prefer the self-regulation of content removal guidelines by social media companies over Government intervention. 

In sum, strong majorities of Britons consider offensive statements to be genuinely harmful and support social media companies censoring content they deem sexist, homophobic, or racist. We also find strong support for banning anonymity for social media accounts, along with majority support for Government regulation of social media companies. At the same time, a plurality also thinks that content removal guidelines should not be dictated by the Government but rather set by social media companies themselves—a finding which suggests that striking the right balance between Government regulation and self-regulation of social media companies is certain to be a challenge. In this context, the Government’s Online Safety Bill seems to be directionally, if not exactly, in line with public opinion.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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