Positive & Negative Effects of Social Media in the U.S.

Social media companies have been at the center of a years-long firestorm since before the 2016 US Presidential Election. Though the user base for these platforms continues to shrink, millions of users still log on to these platforms per day.  This suggests social media might have some positive effects that keep users active. We want to explore those positive effects, along with the negative effects. So, using content from a Pew Research survey conducted in October 2020, we asked participants the following question: “What effect has social media had on the way things are going in this country?”  The chart below shows that only 16% of the participants believed that social media has had a “mostly positive” effect, 32% believed that social media has had “neither a positive or negative” effect, and the majority of participants, 52%, believed that social media has had a “mostly negative” effect on the country.

While constructing our survey, we reviewed other national surveys that addressed similar topics.  One survey was the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, which was in the field from July 13-19, 2020.  The Pew Survey asked participants an open-ended question about why they held their view about social media companies.  The staff at Pew then coded their responses, and we used Pew’s coding of their respondents’ open-ended questions as response options for our survey.  Survey respondents who chose “mostly negative” were shown the list a list of responses, and asked to check all of those responses that explain why they believe that social media is having a negative impact on the country.

Ways Social Media Has Had a Negative Effect on How Things Are Going in the Country Right Now

Eighty-three percent of all participants who believed that social media is having a negative effect on the country agreed that “misinformation and made-up news” was the reason why social media has had a negative effect on the country.  Other reasons why social media has had a negative effect on the country are listed in the chart below:

Ways Social Media Has Had a Positive Effect on How Things Are Going in the Country Right Now

For those relatively few participants who were “mostly positive” (16%) about the effect of social media in the country, 83% believed that social media has a positive effect for “helping people stay informed and aware.” Other positive effects, and the percentage of those who believe that social media is having a positive effect in the country, are listed in the chart below:

Social media companies stand at the center of major transformations within our culture and the economy.  For many, social media companies, and technology companies generally, have evolved from novelty and luxury, to necessity.  In a recent concurring opinion in Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that “digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech,” and as a result, the Court will “soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”  He offered “common carrier” and “public accommodation” as two legal frameworks that might be employed to increase regulation over social media companies.  

Conservatives like Justice Thomas are not the only ones who are advocating for increased regulation of social media companies.  When asked by New York Times columnist, Ezra Klein, about whether liberals are too eager to suppress ideas that offend them, Senator Bernie Sanders stated, “If you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? No, I don’t feel comfortable about that.”  He went on to say that, “he does not like giving that much power to a handful of high-tech people,” and that regulation of social media companies “is something we’re going to have to think long and hard on.”  

Agreement between Senator Sanders and Justice Thomas on increased regulations for social media companies suggests an emerging consensus on the regulation of social media platforms. We see indications of this in our survey findings, where Democrats and Republicans agree that misinformation is more dangerous than censorship in the U.S. right now.  Social media companies, and technology companies generally, should be prepared for continued scrutiny, potential regulation, and likely increased litigation, in the months and years ahead.