April 19, 2018

Americans Favor Protecting Information Freedoms Over Government Steps to Restrict False News Online

But 56% support steps from technology companies, even if it means some limits on publishing and accessing information

The widespread concerns over misinformation online have created a tension in the United States between taking steps to restrict that information – including possible government regulation – and protecting the long-held belief in the freedom to access and publish information. A new Pew Research Center survey finds that the majority of Americans are resistant to action by the U.S. government that might also limit those freedoms but are more open to action from technology companies.

When asked to choose between the U.S. government taking action to restrict false news online in ways that could also limit Americans’ information freedoms, or protecting those freedoms even if it means false information might be published, Americans fall firmly on the side of protecting freedom. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say they prefer to protect the public’s freedom to access and publish information online, including on social media, even if it means false information can also be published. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) fall the other way, preferring that the U.S. government take steps to restrict false information even if it limits those freedoms, according to a survey conducted Feb. 26-March 11, 2018, among 4,734 U.S. adults who are members of Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel.

When the same question is posed about technology companies taking those steps, however, the balance changes. More U.S. adults (56%) favor technology companies taking steps to restrict false information, even if it limits the public’s freedom to access and publish information. By comparison, 42% prefer to protect those freedoms rather than have tech companies take action, even if it means the presence of some misinformation online.

The resistance to U.S. government action cuts across nearly all demographic groups studied, with strong sentiments among young Americans, the college educated and men, as well as both Democrats and Republicans. The exceptions are those with a high school degree or less and those ages 50 and older, who are about evenly divided between the government taking steps and ensuring the protection of information freedoms.

Additionally, most demographic groups express more support for action by tech companies than by the U.S. government. Yet the degree of support for such companies taking steps varies across groups. Specifically, Democrats express more support for technology companies acting than do Republicans, even if it brings some broader limits on freedom to publish. Older Americans (ages 50 and older) are also more supportive of tech companies taking action than are younger adults.

Republicans and Democrats equally oppose U.S. government involvement in restricting false information online but are divided when it comes to tech companies

Republicans and Democrats are about equally resistant to steps by the U.S. government to restrict false news and information online, even if it means possibly limiting people’s freedom to access and publish information. But a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor steps by technology companies, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are about equally split on that proposal.

Majorities of both parties agree that people’s freedom to access and publish information online is a priority over having the government take action to curtail false information in a way that could limit those freedoms (60% of Republicans and Republican leaners say this, as do 57% of Democrats and Democratic leaners).

There are partisan differences when it comes to steps from technology companies. A majority of Democrats (60%) favor action by technology companies to restrict misinformation, even if it includes broader information limits online. Republicans, on the other hand, are about equally divided between the two options: 48% favor technology companies taking steps to control misinformation, and 50% favor protecting freedoms online.

Younger Americans show greater resistance to action by both the government and tech companies to limit misinformation online

About half or more of adults in each age group studied prefer the freedom to publish and access information online over U.S. government intervention that might restrict such freedoms.

This position is strongest among younger Americans. At least six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 (65%) and 30 to 49 (62%) prefer no government restrictions on information flow compared with 53% of those 50 to 64 and 48% of those 65 and older.

The younger age groups are also less willing to support steps from technology companies than adults 50 and older. Among those 50 and older, 64% support having technology companies take steps to restrict false information online. Those in younger age groups, on the other hand, are about evenly split between the two positions.

The less educated are more supportive of action by the U.S. government to restrict false news

Adults with at least some college education are more likely than those with less education to oppose efforts by the U.S. government to curb false information online, even if they impact broader public information freedoms. At least six-in-ten adults with some college education (64%) and a bachelor’s degree or more (68%) prefer to accept the presence of false information online as long as the public’s freedom to access and publish information remains intact. Adults with no college education, however, are about equally divided between those who support government restrictions (50%) and those who support free access (44%).

At 61%, those with high school education or less are also more likely to support actions by technology companies than those with at least some college education, who are, again, largely divided between the two options.

Both men and women favor protecting freedom of information online over government intervention, but men do so at higher rates

About half or more of men and women support unrestricted access to information online over government intervention. Roughly six-in-ten men (63%) and about half (53%) of women believe people’s freedom to publish and access information should be protected rather than having the U.S. government take steps to restrict false information.

When the question is asked about technology companies, however, women prefer that steps be taken while men are divided between the two positions. Nearly six-in-ten women (59%) supported this stance, compared with 39% who prefer protecting the freedom to access and publish online even if it brings false news and information with it. Men, though, are about evenly split, with 52% supporting technology companies’ intervention in controlling false information and 46% preferring the companies take no action in order to protect people’s freedom to publish and access information.

Overall, both men and women are more likely to support the actions of technology companies than the government to restrict online publishing and information.