Most Americans think social media divides country more than it unites

Apr 8, 2019 | Regulation, Social media, USA

A sizable majority of Americans say social media does more to divide the country than unite it, according to the latest NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll.

The study indicates that the American public holds negative views of social-media giants like Facebook and Twitter, with sizable majorities saying these sites do more to divide the country than unite it and spread falsehoods rather than news.

What’s more, six-in-10 Americans say they don’t trust Facebook at all to protect their personal information, the poll finds.

But the public also believes that technology in general has more benefits than drawbacks on the economy, and respondents are split about whether the federal government should break up the largest tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.

“Social media — and Facebook, in particular — have some serious issues in this poll,” said Micah Roberts, a pollster at the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted this survey with the Democratic firm Hart Research Associates.

“If America was giving social media a Yelp review, a majority would give it zero stars,” Roberts added.

According to the poll, 57 percent of Americans say they agree with the statement that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter do more to divide the country, while 35 percent think they do more to bring the nation together.

Fifty-five percent believe social media does more to spread lies and falsehoods, versus 31 percent who say it does more to spread news and information.

Sixty-one percent think social media does more to spread unfair attacks and rumors against public figures and corporations, compared with 32 percent who say it does more to hold those public figures and corporations accountable.

And a whopping 82 percent say social media sites do more to waste people’s time, versus 15 percent who say they do more to use Americans’ time well.

But those numbers also come as nearly seven-in-10 Americans — 69 percent — say they use social media at least once a day.

The negative attitudes about social media are shared by Democrats, Republicans, men, women, urban residents and rural ones.

One variable, however, is age — with younger poll respondents less likely to believe that social media divides the country and spreads unfair attacks and rumors.

Sixty percent don’t trust facebook to protect personal information

The NBC/WSJ poll also finds Americans are down on Facebook, with 60 percent saying they don’t trust the company at all to protect personal information.

Just six percent say they trust it either “a lot” or “quite a bit.”

By contrast, the percentage of Americans not trusting companies or institutions with their personal information is lower for Amazon (28 percent), Google (37 percent) and the federal government (35 percent).

And by a 74 percent-to-23 percent margin, respondents say that social media companies collecting users’ personal data to allow advertisers to target them is not an acceptable tradeoff for free or lower-cost services.

Overall, 36 percent of adults view Facebook positively, while 33 percent see it negatively. And Twitter’s rating is 24 percent positive, 27 percent negative.

“If these were political candidates, it would be one thing,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates. “But for companies, you’d think these ratings would be [more] on the positive side.”

Down on social media, but upbeat about technology

Despite these sour attitudes about social media, the NBC/WSJ poll shows that Americans are upbeat about technology in general.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents agree with the statement that technology has more benefits than drawbacks, because it means products and services can be cheaper and made more efficiently.

That’s compared with 36 percent who believe that technology has more drawbacks than benefits, because it means workers are being replaced by robots and computers.

And 60 percent of Americans say they feel more hopeful rather than more worried when thinking about the changes that technology might bring over the next five years.

Asked if the federal government should break up the largest tech companies – like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – into smaller competing companies, 47 percent say they agree and 50 percent disagree.

In addition to the 69 percent of Americans saying they use social media at least once a day, the NBC/WSJ poll finds 63 percent saying they pay most of their bills online; 48 percent saying they’ve tried to limit their smartphone use; 42 percent saying they’ve made an effort to quit or limit social media; 26 percent who have blocked or unfriended someone on Facebook or social media because of their political views; and 14 percent saying they play an online multiplayer video game like Fortnite.

And asked how old is a child under 18 old enough to have their own smartphone, 42 percent answer ages 15 and older; 40 percent say ages 12 to 14; and 11 percent say ages 11 and younger.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted March 23-27 of 1,000 adults – almost half reached by cell phone – and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.