85% of Conservatives Believe Social Networks Censor Political Speech, According to Pew Study

Tech companies are seen as supporting liberal views

He may like Trump, but he probably doesn't trust social networks. Getty Images
Headshot of David Cohen

Do technology companies lean liberal when it comes to supporting political views? Respondents to a recent study by Pew Research Center seemed to think so, with 72 percent going as far as to say that they believe social media companies actively censor political views that clash with their own.

Pew surveyed 4,594 U.S. adults between May 29 and June 11, and it found that 43 percent of them believe tech companies support liberal views over conservative views, while just 11 percent felt the opposite and 43 percent saw no bias.

This comes on the heels of Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey “breaking bread” with conservative leaders this week. The Washington Post reported that Twitter’s chief “convened a rare private dinner with Republican leaders and conservative commentators in Washington” last week to “build ‘trust’ among conservatives who have long chastised the company … He defended Twitter against accusations that it targeted right-leaning users unfairly but still admitted that the company has room for improvement, according to the attendees.”

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were much more likely to accuse social networks of censoring political speech than Democrats were—85 percent believe it is likely that social media companies engage in this behavior, and 54 percent consider it very likely, while 64 percent believe tech companies more broadly support liberal views. Meanwhile, 53 percent of Democrats feel that tech companies support both sides equally.

Josh Nanberg, president of political and media consultancy Ampersand Strategies, wasn’t surprised by Pew’s findings, although he did say, “85 percent is high, for sure.”

Nanberg said of the distrust by conservatives, “It builds on a decades-long narrative that’s been pushed first through conservative talk radio, and then Fox News. Social media becomes an echo chamber, where you get most of your news from people who believe what you believe. You’re going to get that message reinforced a lot: If you see it everywhere you go, it must be true.”

Eric Schiffer, chairman and CEO of digital marketing solutions provider DigitalMarketing.com and Reputation Management Consultants, added, “Conservatives see the decisions that are made publicly on silencing leading conservatives’ voices or choices that are made that make them feel like they are not respected. Conservatives feel backstabbed. They look at big tech as devastatingly unfair.”

To say that President Donald Trump uses social media—particularly Twitter—far more aggressively than his predecessors would be an obvious understatement, and that Twitter activity plays a role in firing up Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

“Trump has created a level of distrust for media in general and a groundswell of skepticism from the start,” Schiffer said. “The areas of tech that contain media—Facebook, Google—already start out at a deficit.”

Nanberg added, “It’s not like [Trump] says something on Tuesday that garners a lot of attention: He says something at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Tuesday that garners a lot of attention. He’s like a tornado. I think the people who orchestrated the strategy have lost control of it. This is not an overnight sensation.”

The differences were not as drastic when comparing gender instead of politics: 58 percent of respondents believe tech companies support the views of men and women equally, with 33 percent saying they are slanted toward males, with just 8 percent saying they support women over men.

In a more general look at the perception of major technology companies, Pew found that 74 percent of respondents believe their impact has been more good than bad, and 63 percent see that impact as a net positive.

However, just 3 percent believe those companies can be trusted to do the right thing “just about always” and 25 percent “most of the time.” Sixty-nine percent believe tech companies are no more or less ethical than their counterparts in other industries, while 22 percent felt that they are less ethical.

Is more government oversight the answer? A slight majority (51 percent) believes so, while 38 percent see the current level of regulation as appropriate and 9 percent said tech companies should be regulated less.

Democrats were more likely to call for heavier regulation than Republicans, at 57 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Pew said 65 percent of respondents agreed with this statement about tech companies: “They often fail to anticipate how their products and services will impact society.” Meanwhile, just 24 percent believe they do enough to ensure that the personal data of their users is protected.

How much should tech companies be worried about these trends, and can they reverse the flow? Schiffer said Pew’s findings are “not a death rattle for the tech industry, but a call to arms that it has a mess on its hands in terms of trying to get back the fullest level of credibility and trust and drive more revenue.”

He believes the fact that no meaningful alternatives to these platforms exist is helping keep them afloat despite the dissatisfaction from the right, saying, “If conservatives organize around a major player in tech because enough affliction has occurred, you are talking about a vulnerable entity. Some of the big tech entities would have a rathole on their hands. We’d see a mass exodus.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.