There are a lot of mixed messages in a new Gallup-Knight Foundation poll released today about American attitudes toward major internet sites like Facebook and how they are affecting our information ecosystem and thus democracy. And rightfully so. The role of internet sites as gatekeepers and news editors is a complicated matter as the continuing debate over major sites banning content from Alex Jones last week demonstrates.
But one thing is clear: Americans are starting to understand the incredible power platforms like Facebook, Google and YouTube have over information that shapes the way we see the world. And as a result, they are not comfortable with letting CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg operate without some regulation.
“A key area of concern is how major internet companies functioning as gatekeepers or intermediaries between citizens and information can affect exposure to a wide variety of information sources and ideas,” the survey says, citing Russia meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election done on the Facebook and Google platforms.
“Seventy-nine percent of Americans strongly or somewhat agree that major internet companies should be subject to the same rules and regulations as newspapers and broadcast news stations are,” the survey added. “Twenty percent strongly or somewhat disagree.The idea that major internet companies should be subject to the same rules and regulations as traditional news media is shared by all major subgroups, and there are no meaningful differences by party identification or education.”
Almost nothing in any poll is ever “shared by all major subgroups” with “no meaningful differences by party identification or education” in these polarized days. So, to me, that’s an important finding. I have been strenuously arguing for regulation of these sites.
But even here, there is some information that complicates drawing sweeping conclusions. While Americans want regulation of the companies, they do not favor those companies excluding certain kinds of content.
“Majorities say they oppose internet companies excluding content from their sites and apps that they think contains offensive content, that they believe is biased toward one group or another, or that its users have raised concerns about or complained about,” the poll says. “U.S. adults do, however, widely favor companies excluding suspected misinformation from their web platforms, with 80% holding this view.”
But what if the regulation that the majority now approves of would result in excluding certain content? It would particularly when it comes to hate speech and personal attacks on non-public figures.
My synthesis of the overall poll findings is that Americans still want to believe that these major internet sites are a good thing. Of course we do, otherwise we would feel horribly guilty and perhaps even foolish for spending so much time with them.
But the public is also coming to appreciate the fact that there are existential dangers in embracing as vast a technological and cultural change as we did with the internet without much initial thought or discussion. The election of 2016 and the results we now live with everyday brought that home.
“Despite the more negative than positive views of major internet companies’ basic content curation practices and the motivations for using the methods they do, Americans give these companies credit for fostering two key aspects of a democratic society,” the poll says. “Specifically, 75% strongly or somewhat agree that major internet companies help connect people to their local community and to the U.S. as a whole, and 54% strongly or somewhat agree that they help Americans become better-informed.”
Maybe more informed, I’d argue against better informed. In fact, I’d argue more misinformed when it comes to political information.
“At the same time, U.S. adults are critical of major internet companies’ actions to stop the spread of misinformation and to expose people to a variety of different opinions,” the poll adds, “Eighty-five percent strongly or somewhat disagree that these companies are doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation, and 69% strongly or somewhat agree they are limiting Americans’ exposure to viewpoints different from their own.”
The one sure thing I can say about the study is that it is definitely worth a click to read further. It brings valuable data to a crucial discussion that we are starting to more fully engage in as a society — at least a decade after that should have happened.