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Anyone who has spent much time on social media knows how acrimonious and divisive it can be, and in recent years numerous commentators and researchers have lamented the impact of online platforms on politics and society. As a recent 19-nation Pew Research Center survey shows, ordinary citizens in many countries agree with these critiques: they believe social media can be divisive and uncivil, and they are concerned about the amount of false information online. However, they also believe this new public space has had many positive effects on society, and when asked about the overall impact of social media on politics, most actually say it has been positive.
Most say that social media has been good for democracy but has had important negative and positive effects on politics and society
Note: Percentages are 19-country medians except for the question about political civility, which is an 18-country median and excludes Japan due to a translation error. Those who did not answer not shown. Source: Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey. PEW RESEARCH CENTER
Across the 19 mostly high-income nations we polled, a median of 57% said social media has been more of a good thing for democracy in their country. With all of their pernicious effects, why do so many see these platforms in positive terms? Part of the answer may be that social media gives people a sense of empowerment at a time when few feel empowered. Our survey found that majorities in nearly every country polled believe their political system does not allow people like them to have an influence in politics. Social media can help people feel less powerless in a few ways.
Majorities in most countries surveyed say online platforms are 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.
First, online platforms can inform citizens. 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 people widely believe online platforms make it easier to stay informed. A median of 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.
Second, at a time when people in many nations around the world are frustrated with political elites and with the dysfunction of their political systems, social media is seen as an effective tool for accomplishing political goals and getting things done in the political arena. Majorities in most countries surveyed say online platforms are 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.
And third, for some citizens social media is an outlet for political and social expression. In South Korea, for example, roughly half of social media users say they sometimes or often post or share things online about political or social issues. However, in the other countries polled, posting about these issues is less common, and in 12 nations four-in-ten or more say they never post about political or social topics.
Social media is generally seen as effective at influencing politics and policy
% who say social media is an __ way to do the following
Note: Percentages are medians based on 19 countries. Those who did not answer not shown. Source: Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey. PEW RESEARCH CENTER
Of course, the respondents to our survey are hardly blind to the downsides of social media. A median of 84% think it has made people easier to manipulate with false information and rumors. Nearly two-thirds say it makes people more divided in their political opinions.
The United States has the largest share of the public who believe social media has made people more divided and who believe it has made people less civil in how they talk about politics.
And these negative assessments are particularly common in some nations, especially the United States. The share of Americans who say social media is having a negative impact on democracy is 64%, the highest percentage among the nations surveyed. The United States also has the largest share of the public who believe social media has made people more divided and who believe it has made people less civil in how they talk about politics.
In addition to varying across countries, opinions about social media often vary within countries. For instance, those who have grown up with social media often express more positive views about it. Those ages 18 to 29 are more likely than those 50 and older to say social media has been good for democracy in 12 out of 19 nations surveyed.
Social media generally seen as a good thing for democracy—but not in U.S.
% who say social media has been more of a __ for democracy in their country
Note: Those who did not answer not shown. Source: Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey. PEW RESEARCH CENTER
Young adults are also often more likely to say online platforms have made people more informed about domestic and international events, and they are especially likely to say these technologies have made people more accepting of others from different backgrounds.
While the 19 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2022 were mostly advanced economies, previous research has found similar views in emerging economies. In a 2018 study of 11 nations from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia, people largely said social media could inform and empower citizens, but they also warned that it could lead to manipulation and division.
Our surveys have shown that across regions, and in both advanced and emerging economies, people see dangers as well as opportunities in social media. This new public space can exacerbate the divisions and tensions in society, but it can also empower citizens at a moment when too many feel they lack power.
To learn more, watch also the replays of the OECD Global Forum & Public Governance Ministerial Meeting:
And read more on the Forum Network: Prebunking: Staying ahead of the curve on misinformation by Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden
The spread of misinformation poses a significant challenge to societies worldwide. As well as debunking it, a new line of research looks at how we can prevent social media users from falling for misinformation in the first place: prebunking.
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