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 action has led to strong criticism. Given news coverage and the politicization of social media platforms, we were curious about how this event influenced perceptions of social media companies. Specifically, we wondered whether the general public believes that social media companies favor liberals over conservatives? Does the general public approve of labeling elected officials’ statements as inaccurate or misleading?
55% of our participants believe 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.
There’s a clear difference of opinion along party lines. 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 supports 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.
Labeling Elected Officials' Social Media Posts
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.
We observed a strong effect of political party identification in the approval or disapproval of labeling elected officials’ posts, which was viewed by many people as a form of censorship. 72% of Democrats approved, either “strongly” (47%) or “somewhat” (25%) of social media companies labeling elected officials’ posts as inaccurate or misleading. This belief 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 from people who did not identify with Democrat or Republican political parties — 35% approved, either “strongly” (20%) or “somewhat” (15%).
Censorship by Social Media Companies
Freedom of speech is a bedrock constitutional principle deeply woven into understandings of what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Censorship is reflexively seen as anti-American. But 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 social media has had a negative effect in the United States cited “misinformation” as a one of the consequences.
Forty-eight percent 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. 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.
Much of our analysis of the data regarding social media companies reveals wide discrepancies between Democrats and Republicans. 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 if 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 over jurors who may be politically predisposed against your case. Stay tuned for further details.