Most Americans, especially Republicans, believe that social media companies censor political views that the platforms consider objectionable, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
While a majority of respondents from both political parties said that social media censorship was growing, “this belief is especially common — and growing — among Republicans,” Pew said in a report released last week.
Nine out of 10 Republicans and independents who lean Republican said it was somewhat likely that social media companies curtail objectionable political views, a number that has grown from 85 percent who expressed similar views in 2018, Pew said. Republicans and those who lean toward Republicans also said social media companies favor liberal views over conservative opinions, Pew found.
The survey results come as social media platforms have become highly contentious battlegrounds for political views two months before the November presidential election.
The debate over censorship on social media sites has only gotten worse since Twitter began fact-checking tweets by President Donald Trump related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to voting issues. Facebook, too, has labeled a few of Trump’s posts as misleading.
Mirroring the public opinion of survey respondents, lawmakers of both parties also have repeatedly accused social media companies of favoring their opponents. Lawmakers of both parties and the White House also are aiming to dilute a landmark 1996 law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that protects online companies from being sued for third-party content posted on their sites.
Until recently, however, criticisms from politicians seemed to reflect partisan gripes, with Republicans, including Trump, accusing Facebook and Twitter of censoring conservatives and Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, complaining that the companies have failed to effectively rein in disinformation and violent user content. As a result, bipartisan proposals have been elusive.
But that is slowly changing.
One bipartisan bill, authored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., won committee approval in early July and is awaiting action by the whole chamber. Another, benefiting from the support of Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., is awaiting consideration by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
Little confidence in social media judgment
“This survey finds that the public is fairly split on whether social media companies should engage in this kind of fact-checking, but there is little public confidence that these platforms could determine which content should be flagged,” Pew said.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly defended actions by his company, including letting some controversial posts remain on the platform, and has said he does not want the company to be “arbiters of truth.”
“Partisanship is a key factor in views about the issue” of how respondents view actions by social media companies, Pew said.
About 73 percent of Democrats said they strongly or somewhat approve of social media companies labeling posts from elected officials as inaccurate or misleading. But 71 percent of Republicans said they at least somewhat disapprove of the practice of labeling.
“Republicans are also far more likely than Democrats to say they have no confidence at all that social media companies would be able to determine which posts on their platforms should be labeled as inaccurate or misleading,” Pew said.
The survey was conducted through a self-administered online questionnaire among a sample of 4,708 U.S. adults from June 16-22, Pew said.
The partisan split on labeling extends to the question of whether social media companies should address misleading posts by ordinary users, Pew said. About 52 percent of those surveyed said they approve of social media companies labeling posts from ordinary users on their platforms as inaccurate or misleading, while 45 percent expressed opposition to the idea.
Once again, 7 out of 10 Democrats welcomed the idea of labeling misleading posts from ordinary users, while only 34 percent of Republicans thought it would be a good idea, Pew said.
Some conservatives have decided that they need their own social media platforms where they would have the freedom to post what they want without scrutiny. In 2018, a couple of tech executives launched a platform called Parler, which is considered a rival to Twitter.
Parler has attracted several Republican and conservative lawmakers and commentators as well as far-right activists in the United States. In June 2019, the site attracted as many as 200,000 users from Saudi Arabia, who are said to be supporters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after Twitter removed hundreds of Saudi-based accounts for engaging in “inauthentic” behavior.
In May 2020, after Twitter began labeling Trump’s posts on mail-in ballots and social unrest as misleading or “glorifying violence,” Parler described Twitter as a “tech tyrant” and invited conservatives to ditch Twitter and embrace the alternative platform.