Bias & Censorship by Social Media Companies

News coverage of social media companies has focused on Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to ban Donald Trump from using their platforms. Widely viewed as censorship, this has led to strong criticism of Twitter and Facebook. Given media coverage and the politicization of social media platforms, we were curious about how this influenced perceptions of social media companies. Specifically, we wondered whether the general public believe that social media companies favor liberals over conservatives? And does the general public approve of labeling of elected officials’ statements as inaccurate or misleading?

The chart below shows that 55% of our participants believed that major social media companies favor liberals over conservatives, 34% believe that social media companies treat liberals and conservatives equally, and the remaining 11% believe that social media companies favor conservatives over liberals.

Do You Think Major Social Media Companies Tend to Support the Views of…

There’s a clear difference of opinion along party lines. As shown in the chart below, a little more than half of the Democrats said that social media companies support the views of Liberals and Conservatives equally. In contrast, an overwhelming majority of Republicans (83%) believe that social media companies tend to support the views of Liberals over Conservatives. Only 13% of Republicans believe that social media support the views of “all equally.” Fifty-eight percent of people who identified as neither Democrat nor Republican believe that social media companies support the views of Liberals over Conservatives, and only 9% believe that social media companies support the views of Conservatives over Liberals. One-third of respondents who reported belonging to an  “other” political party believe that social media companies support liberal and conservative views equally.

Do You Think Major Social Media Companies Tend to Support the Views of…

Labeling Elected Officials' Social Media Posts

As shown below, 28% of all of our survey’s respondents “strongly approved” of social media companies adding labels to posts from elected officials that are deemed inaccurate or misleading, 21% “somewhat approved” of those posts, 15% “somewhat disapproved” and 23% “strongly disapproved.”  Only 13% of our sample had no opinion about social media companies labeling posts from elected officials as false or misleading. 

Do You Approve or Disapprove of Social Media Companies Labeling Posts on Their Platforms From Elected Officials as Inaccurate or Misleading?

We observed a strong effect of political party identification in the approval or disapproval of labeling elected officials’ posts, viewed by many as a form of censorship. The chart below shows that 72% of Democrats approved, either “strongly” (47%) or “somewhat” (25%) of social media companies labeling elected officials’ posts as inaccurate or misleading. This is in stark contrast to the Republican respondents where only 24% approved, either “strongly” (6%) or “somewhat” (18%) of social media companies labeling elected officials’ posts. Sixty-four percent of Republicans disapproved of this practice by social media companies. There was slightly more approval of this practice from people who did not identify with Democrat or Republican political parties and 35% approved, either “strongly” (20%) or “somewhat” (15%).

Do You Approve or Disapprove of Social Media Companies Labeling Posts on Their Platforms From Elected Officials as Inaccurate or Misleading?

Censorship by Social Media Companies

Freedom of speech is a bedrock constitutional principle that is deeply woven into understandings of what it means to be a U.S. citizen.  Censorship is reflexively seen as anti-American.  But many polls show that most Americans believe that social media sites censor political views.  Our data suggest that notions about censorship are changing, and that people are more concerned about misinformation than censorship. In our nationwide survey, 83% of the people who said that social media has had a negative effect in the United States cited “misinformation” as a one of the consequences. 

The chart below shows that 48% of our survey respondents “agree strongly” and 36% “agree somewhat” that misinformation is a bigger problem than censorship in the U.S. now.  Only 16% disagreed with this statement, either “strongly” (6%) or “somewhat” (10%). 

In the United States Right Now, Misinformation is a Bigger Problem than Censorship.

Given the amount of political polarization in the country now, we decided to explore whether there are differences in whether Democrats and Republicans view censorship and misinformation. When examined by political party, we did not observe wide variations across party lines. As seen below, Democrats had the highest rate of agreement (90%) with the statement. Still 75% of Republican participants agreed that misinformation is a bigger problem than censorship right now. For the participants who were neither Democrat nor Republican, 80% agreed, either “strongly” (46%) or “somewhat” (34%) that misinformation is a bigger problem than censorship.

In the United States Right Now, Misinformation is a Bigger Problem than Censorship.

Much of our analysis of the data regarding social media companies reveals wide discrepancies between Democrats and Republicans.  As shown above, when asked whether social media companies favor liberals over conservatives, only 27% of Democrats agreed, while 83% of Republicans agreed, for a difference in agreement of 56%.    When asked if social media companies should label elected officials’ social media posts as inaccurate or misleading, 72% of Democrats
agreed while only 24% of Republicans agreed, for a difference of 48%.  However, when asked misinformation is a bigger problem than censorship, 52% of Democrats agreed, while 41% of Republicans agreed, for a difference of only 11%

Relatively speaking, Democrats and Republicans are nearly in agreement that misinformation is a bigger problem than censorship.  Where Democrats and Republicans are very likely to differ is on what constitutes misinformation.  This is a story that will continue to unfold in the elections ahead.  

What we will be focusing on in future research is whether there are differences in how Liberals and Conservatives process information that is (in)consistent with their political views.  Exploring this issue will reveal how to win jurors who may be politically predisposed against your case.  Stay tuned for further details.