/Americans Agree: Social Media Is Divisive (But We Keep Using It)

Americans Agree: Social Media Is Divisive (But We Keep Using It)

WASHINGTON—Americans have a paradoxical attachment to the social-media platforms that have transformed communication, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds, saying they regard services such as

Facebook


FB 1.43%

to be divisive and a threat to privacy but continue to use them daily.

Across age groups and political ideologies, adults in the survey said they held a negative view of the effects of social media—even though 70% use such services at least once a day.

Social Media Matters

Americans feel that social media may do more to harm society than help.

Social media does more to…

…spread news and information

…spread lies and falsehoods

…hold public figures and corporations accountable

…spread unfair attacks and rumors

Social media does more to…

…spread news and information

…spread lies and falsehoods

…hold public figures and

corporations accountable

…spread unfair

attacks and rumors

Social media does more to…

…spread news and information

…spread lies and falsehoods

…spread unfair attacks and rumors

…hold public figures and corporations accountable

Social media does more to…

…spread lies

and falsehoods

…spread news

and information

…hold public figures

and corporations

accountable

…spread unfair

attacks and rumors

The deep-dive survey into views of technology draws a picture of Americans struggling personally with their social-media habits and looking for more supervision of social-media companies by the federal government. Pollsters said they were surprised by the high and relatively uniform dissatisfaction with social media across demographic and political groups.

“If we saw this same, strongly negative force of opinion—spanning partisanship and age—stacked against any one of our corporate clients, I think they would certainly be concerned about their standing in the marketplace and in the halls of Congress,” said Micah Roberts, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, who helped conduct the survey.

Dislike Button

Despite hope for what technology brings, Americans have soured on social-media firms.

Overall, Americans are optimistic about the future of technology….

…and have positive feelings about tech firms, but are more wary of social-media ones.

More worried about the

changes technology may

bring over the next five years

While hope in technology is tied to prosperity…

…Americans across income levels have similar opinions of social-media companies such as Facebook.

Overall, Americans are optimistic about the future of technology….

…and have positive feelings about tech firms, but are more wary of social-media ones.

More worried about the

changes technology may

bring over the next five years

While hope in technology is tied to prosperity…

…Americans across income levels have similar opinions of social-media companies such as Facebook.

Overall, Americans are optimistic about the future of technology….

…and have positive feelings about tech firms, but are more wary of social-media ones.

More worried about the

changes technology may

bring over the next five years

While hope in technology is tied to prosperity…

…Americans across income levels have similar opinions of social-media companies such as Facebook.

Overall, Americans are optimistic about the future of technology….

More worried about the

changes technology may

bring over the next five years

…and have positive feelings about tech firms, but are more wary of social-media ones.

While hope in technology is tied to prosperity…

…Americans across income levels have similar opinions of social-media companies such as Facebook.

The findings about social media show that “people are kind of struggling with how to handle it from a self-regulation point of view and how we regulate it as a country,’’ said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research Associates, who also worked on the survey.

While they take a skeptical view of social-media companies like Facebook Inc. and

Twitter
Inc.,


TWTR 0.12%

Americans have favorable views of

Amazon.com
Inc.,


AMZN -0.10%

Alphabet
Inc.’s


GOOGL 0.71%

Google unit and

Apple
Inc.,


AAPL 0.17%

though they have little faith in the ability of these three tech giants to protect their personal data.

Americans also are generally optimistic about the benefits technology will bring to their lives and to the economy, although lower-income people and rural residents show significant levels of worry about job losses from automation.

The survey of 1,000 people, conducted March 23-27, surfaced feelings about many features of technology that permeate daily life.

On average, Americans say a 14-year-old is old enough to have his or her own smartphone.

How old is old enough for a child to have their own smartphone?

About half think children 14 and under

should have phones

Adults living with children are less

likely to think young children should have smartphones

Households

without

children

How old is old enough for a child to have their own smartphone?

About half think children 14 and

under should have phones

Adults living with children are less

likely to think young children should have smartphones

Households

without

children

How old is old enough for a child to have their own smartphone?

About half think children 14 and under

should have phones

Adults living with children are less

likely to think young children should have smartphones

Households

without

children

How old is old enough for a child to have their own smartphone?

Households

without children

But in a potentially worrisome development for the internet economy, almost three quarters of respondents said they believe the trade-off that underpins the huge sector—consumers receiving free services but giving up detailed data about their online behavior—is unacceptable.

And a solid majority of respondents said social-media services such as Facebook and Twitter do more to divide Americans than bring them together.

Responding to the survey, a Facebook spokeswoman said, “We’ve introduced several new tools so people can take greater control of their experience and made product updates to increase the number of meaningful conversations and connections people have on Facebook.’’ Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amazon said it clearly communicates its privacy policies and tries to design its services so that it is intuitive to customers when their data is being collected and used.

Noah Theran, a spokesman for the Internet Association, a trade group that includes Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter, said in a statement: “Free and low-cost, data-driven online services offer Americans enormous benefits. It’s also important for people to have stronger rights to control how their data is collected, used, and protected by companies throughout the economy.”

The poll findings reflect a sense that the public is seeing more downside risks from some online services. The results also suggest that Congress has a green light from voters when it comes to overseeing the lightly regulated internet economy more closely, particularly when it comes to privacy legislation that is now being drafted.

More than half of Americans—54%—said they aren’t satisfied with the amount of federal government regulation and oversight of social-media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, while 36% said they were satisfied with the current level of oversight. And more than 90% of respondents said companies that operate online should get permission before sharing or selling access to a consumer’s personal information, and that they should be required by law to delete it on request.

A majority of respondents said social-media services such as Facebook and Twitter do more to divide Americans than bring them together.


Photo:

Karly Domb Sadof/Associated Press

Americans so far have mixed views about breaking up the big tech companies, as Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has proposed, with most concluding it isn’t a good idea.

Unease with social media runs across virtually all groups, the poll showed, but is highest among men, Republicans, supporters of President Trump and older people.

Robert Noyes, 66, of Salt Lake City, said he views social media as a divisive haven for crackpots and worse.

“The joke around here is, `Well, if it’s on the internet it must be true,’” he said. “You don’t know who’s saying it, what qualifications they have, or what their sources are…We take everything with a grain of salt.”

He also questioned the government’s ability to successfully regulate the internet, given its experience with robocalls.

Social-media companies fared relatively better by some measures among younger people, women, ethnic and racial minorities and people with college degrees.

Tavin Felton-Stackhouse, 19, a student at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, said he sees social media as something that can “bring people together from all walks of life” and circumvent government controls in authoritarian countries. Mr. Felton-Stackhouse also appreciates how technologies such as PlayStation have helped him stay in touch with friends, including those who attend different colleges, he said.

While Hispanics are among some of the most avid users of social media, the survey found, they also are among those who are trying hardest to limit their time online.

“I’m definitely trying to limit it,” said Jennifer Balarezo, 27, of New Jersey. Too often, when she reads an article on Facebook, “an hour or a half-hour goes by, and I’ve done nothing but watch videos and read one article.”

Concerns over privacy are prevalent across the country.

“That’s why I participate in very few things,” said Douglas Libby, 63, of Madison, Maine. “I don’t have Facebook, I don’t tweet…I refuse to, just because I don’t want Uncle Sam or Big Brother looking over my shoulder.”

The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com