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Americans Love-Hate Social Media and Big Tech

Running Numbers by Fosca Majnoni d’Intignano
Adem Ay
A smartphone shows a locked home screen with social media applications

While American usage and reliance on online platforms continue to increase every day, anxiety about data privacy and unfavorable opinions about social media firms remain very high.

Americans Paradoxically Distrust Social Media Firms but Not the Content on Their Platforms

Social media has massively disrupted traditional news channels such as newspapers and the radio: the number of newspapers circulating each day in the United States has been reduced by more than half in the past 20 years. As a result, digital devices have become the mainstream way that Americans say they keep up with current affairs. A September 2020 survey conducted by Pew Research reveals that more than eight in ten (86%) Americans now use smartphones, computers, and tablets to get their news. More than half of adult Americans (53%) often or sometimes get news directly from their social media accounts. Among a growing list of popular online platforms stand America’s two darlings: Facebook, which serves as a regular source of news for about a third of Americans (36%), and Twitter, where 59 percent of users log in specifically to get their news. 

One could think that this rise in internet and social media usage is rooted in general trust for the technology firms that provide it. But polling reveals that many Americans distrust and dislike social media companies. An Ipsos survey from March 2021 confirms that 83 percent of Americans are very or somewhat worried about data privacy and security. Privacy concerns are very high regardless of partisan identification, but are particularly high for Republicans (87% are very or somewhat concerned). This anxiety is at least partially rooted in in Americans’ low opinion of these firms: six in ten Americans (58%) report having an unfavorable opinion of social media companies. 

Regulation: A Far-From-Simple Solution 

The need for legal regulation that enforces privacy protection and content monitoring is an argument that has pervaded policy debates for years now. Far from offering an easy way out of this unhappy marriage between politics and online platforms, rules and regulations present a double challenge. First, Americans are not unanimous about the need to develop regulations. Indeed, only a slim majority of Americans (55%) support new rules and laws limiting what technology companies can do. Some of these laws include regulations to limit what personal information companies can store, such as biometric data

Second, when people do agree that regulation is the way forward, their judgment is strongly affected by their political affiliation. When self-identified Democrats were asked to imagine a scenario in which Joe Biden was denouncing technology companies’ bias and overpowering influence, support was much higher (69%) than if the same message came from Donald Trump (41%). Conversely, if the rules and laws limiting what technology companies can do were said to be proposed by former President Donald Trump, Republicans grow more supportive  of the concept (76%) while support from Democrats tumbles (46%). 

These findings highlight the difficulties in generating the sort of national consensus needed for regulating large technology companies in today’s politicized environment. Coming up with rules for tech and social media companies will prove difficult as long as the issue remains a partisan one. And while everybody disagrees on how to tackle regulation, Big Tech keeps disrupting the US economy and American politics, accruing more power through its data accumulation. 


About the Authors
Fosca Majnoni d’Intignano
Former Intern, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
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Fosca Majnoni d'Intignano joined the Council in July 2021 as an intern with the team working on the Council's annual public opinion survey.
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