Social media companies and other big technology firms are seemingly always under fire.
During President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this month, he called for stricter regulations on Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, FBI Director Christopher Wray has raised national security concerns about TikTok. And lawmakers across the country are considering bans on some social media apps and age restrictions for younger users.
Despite all of this, new survey results from The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University show that public trust in Big Tech companies is up.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke to Taylor Barkley, technology and innovation director for the CGO, about the latest survey measuring levels of trust in both Big Tech and government. He said the results surprised him.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Taylor Barkley: This is the first time we’ve seen upswings in trust, including across the three levels of government: federal, state and local. There’s increased trust across all the major tech companies. Microsoft went up by nine points. Google, by eight, and Amazon, just behind, up by seven. Even TikTok went up from 10 to 16 on levels of trust. It was fascinating to see, for the first time, a big increase in trust for tech companies.
Kimberly Adams: Yeah, that seems odd given that a lot of the rhetoric here in Washington is pushing the exact opposite.
Barkley: That’s correct. It’s surprising and, to be honest, we’re still trying to wrap our heads around why it might be. I’m thinking out loud here, but this is the first time we’ve fielded our poll in the post-COVID environment. July 2020 was the earliest poll, so it’s been during a time when the pandemic was humming along at full speed. Another thought I’ve had is maybe this is a sign of shifting media and political narrative on “techlash” items. But that could be qualified a bit too. Hearings are continuing to happen in Congress and within state governments on regulating tech companies. So it’s a bit of a mystery, frankly, on why trust is up so much.
Adams: You collected some new data for this poll, asking respondents their opinions about the relationship between children and social media. What did you find there?
Barkley: The top-line number here is 75% of Americans, 3 out of 4, agree that social media companies have an obligation to ensure that the health and safety of children is not negatively impacted by the use of their platform. So there’s overwhelming agreement there. Half of Americans distrust Facebook to be safe for children to use, and only 21% of Americans trust Facebook to be safe for children. For most major social media platforms, we saw high levels of distrust when it comes to children’s use of these technologies. What I think our polling reveals is that tech companies have some work cut out for them to demonstrate that they’re trustworthy partners with parents and caregivers in keeping their teens and children safe online.
Adams: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen some of these major platforms really flexing their content-moderation muscles, or in some cases even pulling back on their content moderation. How did survey respondents say they feel about that practice in particular?
Barkley: This was another surprise. Americans believe more strongly now than they did in the summer of 2022 — the last time we fielded our poll — that social media companies are justified in their content moderation. Across the board, all the numbers are up. These are questions about removing disruptive users and disruptive elected officials. Americans believe more strongly that social media companies have a role to play in making sure that their platforms are pleasant to use. Trolling is not good for anyone in this environment. And I think we’re seeing that reflected in our poll, that the public believes that’s the case as well.
Adams: Social media has really been in the headlines lately and it kind of is all of the time. Lawmakers are discussing potentially banning some users under the age of 16 on some social media apps. Where do your survey results fit into this narrative?
Barkley: Key to any of those proposals is age verification. In order to be effective in meeting these requirements, should they be passed into law, social media companies and online platforms of any size will need to know the ages of their users. And that requires age verification. We all do this already right now, because current law has much different rules requirements for users under the age of 13. But the bills coming out of places like Texas and Utah have much stricter requirements that require supplying government IDs. We asked Americans about their opinions on supplying their IDs or their children’s IDs, or biometric information, such as fingerprint data or facial recognition data, and two out of three Americans don’t want to give social media companies their ID or their biometrics. That goes even higher if when it comes to their children’s IDs or biometric information. So that’s something that I think policymakers should really pay attention to.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
If you’re interested in seeing more findings from the CGO’s survey and seeing its scope and methodology, you can click here to see their report.
Here on “Marketplace Tech,” we’ve been talking about what age verification on internet platforms means and actually looks like in practice, including how it may disproportionately affects users in marginalized groups.
Last month, we took a look at a Louisiana law that requires internet users in the state to prove they’re 18 or older before they can access websites containing a certain amount of pornographic material. That new law and others like it have privacy advocates worried, for some of the reasons Taylor mentioned.
Finally, Louisiana isn’t the only state taking big steps in the name of protecting minors online. Ars Technica recently reported on seven other states moving to require more identification to access adult content online. The story points to a tracker from the Free Speech Coalition looking at so-called copycat bills to Louisiana’s law.
It looks like Arkansas, Mississippi or Virginia could be up next.
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