Plurality of American Public Believe Social Media Has Made the World a Worse Place

October 22, 2020
R&WS Research Team
Donald Trump | Joe Biden | Media & Press | Social Media

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Over 70% of the U.S. population have a social media account, one of the highest social network penetration rates in the world. Overall, more than 246 million Americans were utilizing social networks in 2019. Nevertheless, in Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest poll of 3,150 American adults, a clear plurality (45%) consider that social media has made the world a worse place. Surprisingly, only 12% believe social media has made the world a better place, despite its widespread usage in the American population. Meanwhile, a substantial minority (29%) say that social media has made the world neither a better nor worse place, which may reflect the complex impact that social media has had on society.

Younger people have a relatively more positive view of social media in comparison to older respondents. Between 14-16% of those aged between 24-54 think social media has made the world a better place, yet only 7% of those aged 55 or older hold this view. Men (15%) are slightly more likely to say that social media has made the world a better place than women (10%). A strong majority (56%) of Donald Trump’s likely voters believe it has made the world a worse place. By contrast, just 41% of likely Joe Biden voters feel that social media has had a negative impact on the world, although this figure still represents a clear plurality.

Social media is regularly criticized for facilitating the spread of misinformation, while violations of privacy and data breaches have also damaged the reputation of a range of platforms. Others have found the behavioral effects of social media usage on the young worrying. When our poll presented respondents with a range of social media platforms, a plurality (42%) said that they did not trust any of them. Around a third (35%) say they trust Facebook, and a fifth (22%) say trust Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). Notably, only 15% of respondents say they trust Twitter, an interesting finding that comes amid the platform’s latest attempts to flag what it deems to be misleading content.

Respondents are starkly divided depending on their age. A majority of 55-64 year olds (52%), and of those aged 65 or older (63%) say they do not trust any social media platforms. By contrast, only around a quarter (24-26%) of those aged between 18-34 do not trust any social media platforms, while a substantial proportion trust Facebook (35-45%) and Instagram (35-39%).

The proportion of respondents who actively distrust Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat outweighs the percentage who trust the platforms. Overall, almost half (49%) of the American public say they distrust Facebook, while 40% say they distrust Twitter, 32% say they distrust Instagram and 30% say distrust Snapchat. Only 38% distrust TikTok, despite concerns that data collected by TikTok’s Chinese-owner ByteDance may be handed to the Chinese Government. 

Likely Donald Trump voters are more distrustful of all major social media platforms than likely Joe Biden voters. Among likely Donald Trump voters, 57% distrust Facebook, 48% distrust Twitter, and 46% distrust TikTok. By contrast, among likely Joe Biden voters, 48% distrust Facebook, 37% distrust Twitter, and 38% distrust TikTok.  

Greater distrust among Donald Trump supporters may be related to what they decry as censorship. Just last week, Facebook and Twitter both decided to limit the circulation of an article published by the New York Post relating to Hunter Biden. One senior Facebook official in communications said the platform would reduce the story’s visibility until fact checkers could analyze the content, while Twitter initially said the story violated the company’s “Hacked Materials Policy before its founder then admitted the company had made the wrong decision.

Meanwhile, at a time when a sizable share of Americans get their news through social media, a clear plurality (38%) of the American public believe that President Trump has been treated unfavorably by the media during his first term. Only around a quarter (27%) say the media treated President Trump neutrally, while a fifth (19%) say the incumbent President has been treated favorably.

Public perceptions on how the media has treated Donald Trump are strongly influenced by partisan bias. The overwhelming majority (70%) of those voting for Donald Trump this year say he has been treated unfavorably, yet only 17% of Joe Biden supporters hold this view. Only a quarter of Donald Trump supporters say the media has approached the President from a neutral or favorable perspective during his first term. By contrast, a plurality (43%) of Joe Biden voters say the President has been treated neutrally, and another fifth (22%) say he has been treated favorably.

Overall, a substantial proportion of the American public believe that social media has made the world a worse place. Furthermore, more Americans distrust the major social media platforms than trust them. Donald Trump supporters are particularly likely to distrust social media, which may be related to the decision of the major companies to censor the President’s posts and to reduce circulation of content which could harm Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

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. Follow us on Twitter

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