In the midst of an ongoing debate over the power of digital technology companies and the way they do business, sizable shares of Americans believe these companies privilege the views of certain groups over others. Some 43% of Americans think major technology firms support the views of liberals over conservatives, while 33% believe these companies support the views of men over women, a new Pew Research Center survey finds. In addition, 72% of the public thinks it likely that social media platforms actively censor political views that those companies find objectionable.
The belief that technology companies are politically biased and/or engaged in suppression of political speech is especially widespread among Republicans. Fully 85% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think it likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints, with 54% saying this is very likely. And a majority of Republicans (64%) think major technology companies as a whole support the views of liberals over conservatives.
On a personal level, 74% of Americans say major technology companies and their products and services have had more of a positive than a negative impact on their own lives. And a slightly smaller majority of Americans (63%) think the impact of these companies on society as a whole has been more good than bad. At the same time, their responses highlight an undercurrent of public unease about the technology industry and its broader role in society. When presented with several statements that might describe these firms, a 65% majority of Americans feel the statement “they often fail to anticipate how their products and services will impact society” describes them well – while just 24% think these firms “do enough to protect the personal data of their users.” Meanwhile, a minority of Americans think these companies can be trusted to do the right thing just about always (3%) or most of the time (25%), and roughly half the public (51%) thinks they should be regulated more than they are now.
These are among the key findings of this Pew Research Center survey, conducted May 29-June 11 among 4,594 U.S. adults.
Majorities of Republicans say major technology companies favor the views of liberals over conservatives and that social media platforms censor political viewpoints they find objectionable
As technology companies have taken on an increasingly central role in the media landscape and broader economy, they have been drawn into a number of controversies relating to the perception that they actively support or promote certain viewpoints over others. For instance, social media sites and other online platforms have faced charges from conservative commentators and lawmakers that their platforms suppress or limit the reach of right-leaning viewpoints. And this survey finds that a substantial share of Americans – especially those with conservative political leanings – agree with these arguments.
When asked about the political views that major technology companies support, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say these companies support the views of liberals and conservatives equally. Instead, a slight majority feels these companies support the views of one side of the partisan spectrum over the other: 43% of Americans say the companies support the views of liberals over conservatives, while 11% say they support the views of conservatives over liberals.
The view that major technology companies are more supportive of certain political views is particularly widespread among Republicans. Some 64% of Republicans (including Republican-leaning independents) say major technology companies support the views of liberals over conservatives, and just 28% say these companies support the views of liberals and conservatives equally. By contrast, 28% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say these companies support liberal views over conservative ones, and 53% say both groups’ views are supported equally. Just 16% of Democrats say the companies support the views of conservatives over liberals.
Along with companies’ perceived support of certain political viewpoints, roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72%) think it likely that social media companies intentionally censor political viewpoints that those companies find objectionable – with 35% saying they find this very likely. The vast majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (85%) think it likely that social media companies engage in this behavior, with 54% indicating they find it very likely. A smaller share of Democrats – though still a majority, at 62% – also think it likely that social media companies engage in this behavior.
In interpreting these findings, it is important to note that the public does not find it inherently objectionable for online platforms to regulate certain types of speech. For example, a 2017 survey by the Center found that the vast majority of Americans think these platforms have a responsibility to step in when their users are engaging in harassing behavior. That same survey found that 53% of Americans think it is more important for people to feel welcome and safe online than it is for people to be able to speak their minds freely in digital spaces (although, notably, 45% say the opposite). Nonetheless, the view that social media platforms take steps to censor certain political viewpoints is one that is widespread among the public as a whole.
When asked a separate question about whether major technology companies support the views of men or women, a majority of Americans (58%) say these companies support the views of men and women equally. One-third (33%) say the companies support the views of men over women, while 8% feel they support the views of women over men.
Men and women differ somewhat in their perceptions of which gender’s values, if either, technology companies favor. Some 39% of women say these companies support the views of men more than women, while just 4% say they support women’s views more than those of men. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to say these companies support the views of men over women (26% express this view). In addition, men are three times as likely as women to say these companies support the views of women over those of men (12% of men express this opinion). However, majorities of both men (61%) and women (55%) say these companies support the views of men and women equally.
74% of Americans say major technology companies’ products and services have been more good than bad for them personally, but a somewhat smaller share (63%) thinks they have had a net positive impact on society as a whole
Previous Pew Research Center surveys have found that Americans tend to be more broadly upbeat about the impact of technology on their own personal lives than they are about the impact of technology on society as a whole. And this survey finds continuing evidence of this trend in the specific context of public attitudes toward major technology companies.
Roughly three-quarters of Americans (74%) think the impact of major technology companies on their own lives has been more good than bad, while 24% say the opposite. When asked about the broader societal impact, a majority of Americans continue to feel positively, but the share saying the good outweighs the bad falls to 63%. And 36% of Americans say the impact of these companies on society as a whole has on balance been more bad than good.
In general there is relatively modest variation on these questions across demographic categories, but certain groups stand out somewhat in their views. Notably, Americans who have not graduated from college express somewhat more negative views about the impact these companies have had on their own lives, as well as on society as a whole. Some 17% of those with a college degree say the bad outweighs the good, compared with 28% among those who have not graduated from college. Similarly, 29% of college graduates describe the societal impact as more bad than good, as do 39% among Americans who have not graduated from college.
Along with these differences by educational attainment, Republicans are somewhat more pessimistic than Democrats about the impact of these companies – especially their impact on society as a whole. Some 41% of Republicans and Republican leaners think these companies have had an impact on society that is more bad than good, compared with 32% of Democrats.
Relatively few Americans trust major technology companies to consistently do what is right, and 51% think they should be regulated more than they are currently
Overall, the public expresses modest levels of trust in major technology companies to do what is right. Only 3% of Americans think these companies can be trusted to do what is right just about all of the time, notably smaller than the share (14%) that thinks they can hardly ever be trusted. In total, some 28% of Americans think these companies can be trusted to do the right thing most of the time or always, while a total of 72% think they can be trusted to do the right thing some of the time or hardly ever.
Even so, a majority of Americans (69%) say these companies are no more or less ethical than companies in other industries. Around one-in-five (22%) think they are generally less ethical than companies in other industries, while 8% feel they are more ethical than others. Republicans and Republican leaners are around twice as likely as Democrats to say these companies are less ethical than others (30% vs. 16%). But a majority of Americans belonging to or leaning toward each party say major technology companies are about as ethical as companies in other industries.
When asked about the appropriate role of government in regulating major technology companies, around half of U.S. adults (51%) believe these companies should be regulated more than they are now. Around one-in-ten (9%) feel they should be regulated less than they are now, while 38% say their current level of regulation is appropriate.
Although Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see an anti-conservative bias among major technology companies, this attitude does not translate into a broader desire by Republicans for increased regulation of these companies. Just over half (57%) of Democrats and Democratic leaners think major technology companies should be regulated more heavily than they are now, but that share falls to 44% among Republicans and Republican leaners. Indeed, 12% of Republicans say these companies should be regulated less than they are currently. That view is shared by 7% of Democrats.
More broadly, the public places technology companies somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of their overall power in the economy relative to other industries and commercial entities. Asked about the relative clout of eight different groups or entities, just over half the public (55%) says technology companies have too much power and influence, similar to the share (57%) that thinks the energy industry has an outsize influence on the economy today. Larger shares of the public feel that pharmaceutical companies, advertisers, or banks and other financial institutions have too much power and influence today, while smaller shares think this is true of labor unions, small businesses or the farming and agriculture industry.
Americans also are generally downbeat about the role and impact of tech firms when presented with statements about those firms. Majorities of Americans feel these companies create products and services that mostly benefit people who already have advantages in life (64% think this describes these companies well) and that they often fail to anticipate how their products and services will impact society (65%). At the same time, just 24% think these firms “do enough to protect users’ personal data” – and 75% feel this is not an accurate description of major technology companies.
Generational differences exist around some – but not all – of these questions about the role of technology companies in society
Although differing shares of older and younger adults adopt and use various technologies in their own lives, their views of the technology industry itself diverge in certain ways but align in others.
On some of these issues, younger and older Americans express similar attitudes. For instance, they have comparable levels of trust in major technology firms to consistently do what is right; are equally likely to think that these companies support the views of a particular gender or political affiliation over others; and are equally likely to say the impact of these companies on society as a whole has been more good than bad.
On other questions, there are more pronounced differences between the attitudes of older and younger Americans – with older adults typically taking a more broadly pessimistic view of these firms and their overall impact. For instance, larger shares of older adults think major technology companies often fail to anticipate how their products and services will impact society, that these companies have too much power and influence in today’s society, and that they should be regulated more than they are currently. And while sizable shares of both age groups think it likely that social media companies censor political speech that those companies find objectionable, that view is shared by a larger majority of older (81%) than younger (67%) adults.