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Big Tech is still struggling to earn the public’s trust
Aug 26, 2022

Big Tech is still struggling to earn the public’s trust

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Social media companies in particular are the least trusted tech firms in America, according to a recent poll from the Center for Growth and Opportunity.

Bashing Big Tech has become something of a rare, unifying pastime in these divided times. But more nuanced views, in our world of thumbs up and crying emoji, can be harder to pin down.

Researchers from the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University want to shed more light on the attitudes of Americans more broadly and how they view our biggest tech firms.

The Center worked with YouGov on its latest poll, which found there’s plenty of distrust. But in the words of a Facebook relationship status — it’s complicated.

“Marketplace Tech” received exclusive, advance access to the center’s latest poll results. Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Taylor Barkley, technology and innovation director at CGO to discuss which companies people trust or distrust and the various distinctions behind those trust issues.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Taylor Barkley: So in our latest poll, TikTok and Facebook were the most distrusted companies and Amazon and Google were the most trusted.

Meghan McCarty Carino: What do you think informs the variation that you see there?

Barkley: You know, it’s difficult to tell for sure. But what really popped out to us in our data was partisan identification and level of political activity. So we asked respondents, do they identify as conservative, liberal or Democrat, Republican, as well as with four categories to gauge political interest – “hardly at all” and the other end was “most of the time.” And those who pay attention most of the time had the highest level of distrust, and those who pay attention hardly at all on political issues had the lowest levels of distrust or the most trust. Another thing that jumps out to us is the most distrusted companies in our survey this year and in the prior three surveys going back to 2020, are social media companies. More than others on the list, they’re dealing with issues of speech. I think the public can perceive them as arbiters of speech and of course, speech issues, get caught up into political considerations. So those who are paying attention to politics most of the time, as opposed to hardly at all, I think, that will greatly sway their perceptions and trust of these companies.

McCarty Carino: Do you think non-social media companies like Amazon and Google just seem more trustworthy sort of in relief to social media companies? Or are they representing something to people that makes them more trustworthy?

Barkley: I think across the board, I think all these companies, for most Americans, their experience of these platforms and services are good. You know, they work as they should, they’re helpful in their daily life for providing positive benefits. And I think one thing that I’ve been wrestling with, thinking about is, you know, perhaps [when] using a social media company, it’s a little less clear what is the benefit to me. I can see family and friends and stay connected and watch interesting videos. But when I use Amazon, for instance, I’m there to shop, I’m there to find something that’s helpful. I’m trusting them with my credit card data, for instance. And it’s a much clearer like one-to-one connection between the benefit I get out of their services, as opposed to say, a social media company, so that might be another aspect.

McCarty Carino: So this issue of speech was clearly important. And the way these platforms, social media platforms, moderate content, also was something important that you asked about. What did you find in terms of how people feel about that?

Barkley: So overwhelmingly, we found that people think social media companies are justified in removing users that violate the rules, removing content they think poses a risk to public health and safety, even removing elected officials who are disruptive or violate the rules. And these numbers are at the 70% to 60% level. So it was pretty overwhelming support. And you know what our survey also found an overwhelming support for free speech being 86% of Americans and respondents in our poll said that free speech offered positive benefits for society.

McCarty Carino: Given some of these positive responses, how do you reconcile the high level of distrust? What’s behind that contradiction?

Barkley: I think here it goes back to levels of political interest and activity. You know, the contradiction is most with those who are the least politically active. So in other words, most politically active or split between whether social media companies are justified removing content or not, like it was a pretty even disagreement and agreement numbers, as it were. Whereas those who are hardly at all politically interested, it was 6% disagreeing with the justification and removing content and like 45% agreeing that they were justified.

McCarty Carino: Now, you found a majority agreed that important political conversations happen on social media platforms, this is kind of how they’re often framed as the public square. But a majority largely said they didn’t participate, right?

Barkley: That’s correct. Yeah, we found this question and result fascinating. So 61% of respondents agreed that important public policy discussions happen primarily on social media was the question but then 24% actually used it for that purpose. That probably comes down to daily use instances. You know, getting into political discussions or arguments in social media can be draining so, you know, not that many people are getting involved. And you know, this is why my colleagues Chris Koopman, and Will Reinhardt, they call social media is the Coliseum not the public square, like the Colosseum in ancient Rome. People are going to see these fights and disagreements live but they’re not participating themselves. They much prefer it as a spectator sport.

You can find the latest results of the CGO poll and past polls here. Some of those results mirror an annual poll from Axios and Harris Poll Research which found back in May, social media companies instill less trust than more “hardware” focused tech firms like Apple, Samsung and Sony.

Taylor Barkley mentioned in the CGO poll that partisan identification was an important factor with conservatives tending to distrust most platforms slightly more than liberals but there was one tech company that was largely spared across partisan lines – Zoom.

Taylor hypothesized that might be due to its crucial role connecting people during lockdowns, not to mention, it’s still pretty new.

Another relatively well-trusted service in the poll was Slack, the messaging program mostly used by office workers – including here at Marketplace. Fewer than 20% of respondents said they distrust Slack.

But it turns out a majority also don’t know what it is.

And if you’re one of those people, well … count yourself lucky.

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The team

Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer