President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office before signing an executive order related to regulating social media on May 28, 2020. (Doug Mills/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office before signing an executive order related to regulating social media on May 28, 2020. (Doug Mills/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order aimed at discouraging social media companies from censoring posts. The order follows a decision by Twitter earlier in the week to add fact-checking labels to two of Trump’s tweets, even as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he doesn’t believe internet companies should fact-check political speech.

Amid the back-and-forth between Twitter and perhaps its most high-profile user, here are some fast facts about Americans’ attitudes toward social media companies, based on Pew Research Center surveys of U.S. adults fielded before the current controversy.

  • Most Americans resist U.S. government taking steps against misinformation online that could limit freedoms, but more are open to tech companies taking actionIn a survey in February and March 2018, 56% of Americans said tech companies should take steps to restrict false information online, even if it limits freedom of information. Around four-in-ten (42%) said freedom of information should be protected even if it means false information can be published. Republicans were about evenly divided on this question (50% vs. 48%), while most Democrats (60%) said tech companies should take steps to restrict false information online. Notably, Americans were more open to tech companies restricting false information online than they were about the government doing the same. Only about four-in-ten adults (39%) said the government should take steps to restrict false information online, while 58% said freedom of information should be protected even if it means false information can be published.
  • Roughly seven-in-ten Americans think it likely that social media platforms censor political viewpointsAbout seven-in-ten Americans (72%) said in a May and June 2018 survey that it is somewhat or very likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints they find objectionable. More than eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (85%) expressed this view, as did 62% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
  • Majority of Republicans say major technology companies support the views of liberals over conservativesIn the same 2018 survey, 43% of U.S. adults said major technology companies support the views of liberals over conservatives, while 11% said they support the views of conservatives over liberals; 43% said tech companies support the views of both liberals and conservatives equally. (This question was asked in the context of perceptions of tech companies’ political leanings generally, not necessarily in the context of regulating speech on their platforms.) A majority of Republicans (64%) said tech companies support the views of liberals over conservatives. Among Democrats, 53% said tech companies favor the views of both liberals and conservatives equally. Few in either party coalition (6% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats) said these companies favor the views of conservatives over liberals.
  • The same summer 2018 survey found that a minority of Americans think tech companies can be trusted to do the right thing just about always (3%) or most of the time (25%). Roughly half of the public (51%) said they should be regulated more than they are now.
  • Social media sites have emerged as a prominent source of news for some Americans. About three-in-ten Americans said in a July 2019 survey that they get news on social media often (28%), up from 20% in 2018.
  • Americans split on whether fact-checkers favor one side; most Republicans say this is the caseAmericans are divided over fact-checking efforts by news outlets and other organizations. Half of U.S. adults said in an early 2019 survey that fact-checking efforts by these organizations deal fairly with all sides, while 48% said they tend to favor one side. Partisans were sharply divided in their views: Around seven-in-ten Democrats (69%) said fact checkers deal fairly with all sides, while roughly the same share of Republicans (70%) said they tend to favor one side. (This question did not ask about fact checking by social media companies specifically.)
  • The U.S. public’s views of tech companies have become more negative in recent years. In a summer 2019 survey, half of Americans said tech companies were having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country – a decline from 2015, when 71% said this. Negative views of technology companies’ effect on the country have nearly doubled during this period, from 17% to 33%. There was a similar decline in positive views among both Republicans and Democrats.
Katherine Schaeffer  is a research assistant at Pew Research Center.