Big Tech still struggles to gain public trust

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Bashing Big Tech has become a rare and unifying pastime in these divided times. But more nuanced opinions, 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 light on Americans’ attitudes more broadly and how they view our biggest tech companies.

The Center worked with YouGov on its latest poll, which found there was a lot of mistrust. But in the words of a Facebook relationship status – it’s complicated.

“Marketplace Tech” received exclusive, early access to the center’s latest survey results. Meghan McCarty Carino sat down with Taylor Barkley, Director of Technology and Innovation at CGO, to discuss which companies people trust or distrust and the various distinctions behind these trust issues.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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

Meghan McCartyCarino: What do you think informs the variation you see there?

Barkly: You know, it’s hard to say for sure. But what really stands out to us from our data is partisan identification and the level of political activity. So we asked respondents whether they identified as conservative, liberal, or Democrat, Republican, along with four categories to gauge political interest – ‘almost not at all’ and the other end was ‘most of the time “. And those who pay attention most of the time have the highest level of distrust, and those who barely pay attention to political issues have the lowest level of distrust or the most trust. Another thing that jumps out at us is that the most suspicious companies in our survey this year, and the three previous surveys dating back to 2020, are social media companies. More than others on the list, they face speech issues. I think the public can perceive them as arbiters of speech and of course, speaking questions, get drawn into political considerations. So those who pay attention to politics most of the time, rather than very little, I think, will greatly influence their perception and trust in these companies.

McCarty Carino: Do you think non-social media companies like Amazon and Google just seem more trustworthy to relieve social media companies? Or do they represent something to people that makes them more trustworthy?

Barkly: I think overall, I think all of these companies, mostly Americans, have a good experience with these platforms and services. You know, they work as they should, they are useful in their daily life to bring positive benefits. And I think one thing that I’ve struggled with, thought about is, you know, maybe [when] using a social media company, it’s a little less clear what the benefit is for me. I can see my family and friends, stay connected and watch interesting videos. But when I use Amazon, for example, I’m there to shop, I’m there to find something useful. I give them my credit card details, for example. And that’s a much clearer one-to-one connection between the benefits I get from their services, as opposed to, say, a social media company, so that might be another aspect.

McCarty Carino: So this question of speech was clearly important. And how those platforms, social media platforms, moderated content, was also a big thing that you asked about. What did you find in terms of how people felt about it?

Barkly: So we found overwhelmingly that people think social media companies are right to remove users who break the rules, remove content they believe poses a risk to public health and safety, or even to remove elected officials who disrupt or violate the rules. And these numbers are between 70% and 60%. So that was pretty overwhelming support. And you know what our survey also found overwhelming support for free speech being 86% of Americans and respondents to our poll said free speech provides positive benefits to society.

McCarty Carino: Given some of these positive responses, how do you reconcile the high level of mistrust? What is behind this contradiction?

Barkly: I think here it goes back to levels of political interest and activity. You know, the contradiction is more with those who are less politically active. So in other words, the most politically active or split between whether social media companies are justified in removing content or not, as if it were a disagreement and an agreement fairly uniform, so to speak. While those who are not politically interested, 6% disagreed with justifying and removing content and 45% agreed that they were justified.

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

Barkly: It’s correct. Yes, we found this question and result fascinating. Thus, 61% of respondents agreed that important public policy discussions taking place primarily on social media was the issue, but 24% actually used it for this purpose. It probably boils down to everyday use cases. You know, getting into political discussions or arguments on social media can be exhausting, so, you know, not many people get involved. And you know, that’s why my colleagues Chris Koopman and Will Reinhardt, they call social media the Colosseum and not the public square, like the Colosseum in ancient Rome. People are going to see these fights and disagreements live, but they don’t participate in them themselves. They much prefer it as a spectator sport.

You can find the latest CGO poll results and previous polls here. Some of those results reflect an annual survey by Axios and Harris Poll Research that found in May that social media companies command less trust than more “hardware”-focused tech companies like Apple, Samsung and Sony.

Taylor Barkley mentioned in the CGO poll that partisan identification was a big factor, with conservatives tending to distrust most platforms slightly more than liberals, but there was one tech company that was largely untouched by the partisan lines – Zoom.

Taylor speculated that this could be due to her crucial role in connecting people during shutdowns, not to mention that’s still fairly new.

Another relatively reliable service in the poll was Slack, the messaging program primarily used by office workers – including here on Marketplace. Less than 20% of respondents said they were wary of Slack.

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

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

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