Britons trust social media platforms less than any other major nation and favour stronger regulation of Silicon Valley’s technology companies, according to a survey of 23 countries.
More than four in five Britons distrust platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, with other developed nations such as France, Germany and the US not far behind. The attitudes contrast sharply with those in middle-income countries such as Brazil, India and Mexico, where trust is far higher.
The findings are part of the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, a wide-ranging poll of more than 25,000 people on a range of topics including populism, globalism and technology. The Guardian, which helped design the survey, is exclusively releasing the findings.
Respondents were asked how much they trusted information from various sources, including national broadsheet newspapers, social media and online-only news websites. Britons were the least trusting of all of those media: just 12% trusted information from social media, compared with 83% who had little or no trust in platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
In all, 23% of Americans said they trusted information gained from social media, as did 20% of Germans, and 28% of Canadians. In developing nations, however, the trust was much higher: a majority of Indians (52%), Saudis (52%) and Thais (52%) trusted information from social media – as did 51% of Poles.
Just two sources of information were trusted by a majority of Britons: national TV news channels (61%) and local news organisations (54%). Only the US was more mistrusting of information sources in general. According to the polling, local news organisations are the sole news sources that are trusted by a majority of Americans (58%)
The deep mistrust of social media in the UK and other rich nations comes after a difficult spell for the sector in which companies have been accused of eroding privacy, harming children and undercutting democracy.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted big tech’s ability and willingness to harvest data and subvert democracy, while the Christchurch shooting is the latest example of terrorism encouraged by online radicalisation.
YouTube has continually been found showing inappropriate content to children, and all the social networks have been implicated in nation-state information warfare, beginning with Russian trolls uncovered on Twitter after the US election.
Episodes such as these explain why Britain is leading calls for increased levels of regulation of social media and technology companies. More than 60% of Britons think those businesses should be regulated more than they are now, compared with just 6% who think there is too much regulation and 15% who think there is the right amount.
The calls for stronger regulation come as the UK government is consulting on legislation intended to make Britain “the safest place in the world to go online”. The Online Harms white paper proposes imposing a new duty of care on companies that host user-generated content online, and landing them with strong penalties, potentially levied personally on individual executives, if they fail to live up to that duty.
In the US, those calling for increased regulation were comfortably the largest group: 47% of those polled believed the industry needed more oversight, while 14% said it needed less, and 21% said it was about right.
Those figures place the US near the middle of the pack when it comes to technology regulation: less supportive than countries such as France (56% calling for more), Spain (61%), and Turkey (65%, with 16% who think there is too much), but more supportive of harsher laws than Germany (46% in favour), Sweden (32%), or Japan (27%).
Appetite for regulation appears broadly correlated with beliefs about the extent of the power and influence technology companies have. Two-thirds of Britons polled said influence was too high, again the highest proportion in the world. At the other end of the scale, Japan was again the most comfortable with technology companies, with just 26% expressing concern about that power, compared with 29% who felt it was just right and 19% who felt the sector should have more power.
The finding suggests the stereotypical view of the US as supportive of laissez-faire market liberalism may be increasingly out of date when it comes to technology. However, the survey results may also reflect the relative lack of regulation in the US, where taming Silicon Valley’s technology corporations is becoming a salient political issue.
Germany, for example, has some of the world’s strictest regulations for technology companies, which came into effect in the past few years.
As an EU member, the country is covered by GDPR, a pan-continental data protection law that allows the authorities to impose steep fines for violations, and it will shortly be covered by the new European copyrightdirective, which imposes strict requirements on social media companies to take steps to prevent copyright infringement on their platforms.
Germany also has strong domestic regulations: the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG) law that was passed in June 2017 requires social networks to remove “obviously illegal” posts within 24 hours after they have been told about them, or face fines of up to €50m.
By contrast, the US has seen little variation in the federal laws it has used to regulate the internet for decades. One of the most notable new pieces of regulation, Sesta, is a comparatively narrow act aimed at ending sexual exploitation and trafficking online, but other than that, a mishmash of state-level legislation has been the extent of the US response to a growing wave of concern over the way the internet is reshaping society.
The YouGov survey also suggests that despite widespread use of social media across the world, people generally do not see the platforms as a tool for keeping up with news and current events.
Just 24% of Britons say they have used Facebook to consume news in the last month, and 14% say they have used Twitter for the same. In the US, those figures are 31% and 13%, with 16% also saying they have used YouTube to follow the news.