A majority says social media empowers people

A majority says social media empowers people

Despite discussions about hate speech and polarisation, a majority think social media has a positive impact on democracy and is giving people a sense of empowerment. A survey across 19 countries shows a median of 57% saying social media has been more of a good thing for their democracy while 35% say it has been bad. However, 84% believe internet and social media have made people easier to manipulate with false information and rumours, a Pew Research Center survey shows.

 There are substantial cross-national differences. “The US is an outlier on a number of measures, with larger shares of Americans seeing social media as divisive.”

Just 34% of US adults think social media has been good for democracy, while 64% say it has had a bad impact. 

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A median of 70% across the 19 nations consider the spread of false information online to be a major threat, second only to climate change on a list of global threats and a median of 65% think it has made people more divided in their political opinions. More than four-in-ten say it has made people less civil in how they talk about politics (only about a quarter say it has made people more civil).

The contradicting results can be explained by social media giving people a sense of empowerment at a time when few feel empowered, the Pew report says. “Majorities in nearly every country surveyed say their political system does not allow people like them to have an influence in politics. In nine nations, including the US, seven-in-ten or more express that view.”

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“Online platforms may help people feel less powerless in a few ways. First, social media informs them. As a recent Pew Research Center report highlighted, majorities in these countries believe that staying informed about domestic and international events is part of being a good citizen, and it is clear that people believe the internet and social media make it easier to stay informed. Nearly three-quarters say the internet and social media have made people more informed about current events in their own country as well as in other countries. Young adults are especially likely to hold these views.” 

Most of those surveyed see social media as an effective tool for accomplishing political goals. Majorities in most countries say it is at least somewhat effective at raising public awareness, changing people’s minds about issues, getting elected officials to pay attention to issues and influencing policy decisions.

Majorities in most of the nations surveyed believe social media has been a good thing for democracy in their country. Assessments are especially positive in Singapore, Malaysia, Poland, Sweden, Hungary and Israel, where 65% or more hold this view, the report shows.

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In contrast, Americans are the most negative about the impact of social media on democracy: 64% say it has been bad. Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party (74%) are much more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners (57%) to see the ill effects of social media on the political system.

Half or more also say social media has been bad for democracy in the Netherlands, France and Australia.

Pew Research Center has been asking about social media usage for the past decade. Growth of social media usage has been especially dramatic in Japan, where just 30% used social media in 2012, compared with 75% today. Social media has also increased markedly in France, Poland, Spain, the US and the United Kingdom. Even in Germany, which lags significantly behind these other nations in social media usage, there has been a notable increase since 2012, the Pew says.

“In every nation surveyed, young people are more likely than others to use social media. However, the age gap has closed over the past decade.”

The 19 country in the survey:

Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, UK , U.S.

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