May 13, 2019

Publics in Emerging Economies Worry Social Media Sow Division, Even as They Offer New Chances for Political Engagement

Appendix B: Technology-related surveys regularly find that people see connectivity bringing positives and negatives

Findings in this survey highlight that publics generally see both benefits and harms emerging from mobile phones, the internet and social media in their societies. In many cases, the more a person sees benefits – such as technology making people more informed – the more they are also likely to see negatives, such as connectivity making people easier to manipulate.

Pew Research Center has found a similar pattern in domestic surveys. For example, while 56% of Americans say social media make it easier to hold powerful people accountable, roughly seven-in-ten (71%) say that these platforms may make people think they’re making a difference when they really aren’t. Similarly, around two-thirds of Americans say social media can help highlight important issues that may not otherwise get a lot of attention, even as around three-quarters say they also run the risk of distracting people from issues that are truly important. In election contexts, Americans have said they believe the internet makes it easier to meet others with similar political views but also increases political extremism.

Some of these tensions may reflect that people generally see digital technologies as more beneficial for themselves than for society at large. Across the 11 emerging economies surveyed in this report, a median of 82% say mobile phones have been mostly a good thing for them personally, compared with a median of 70% who say mobile phones have positively impacted society. Once again, this same pattern exists in the United States; 88% of online American adults say the internet has been mostly good for them, while only 70% say the internet has been mostly good for society.

Surveys also show that people are often confident in their own ability to navigate technology, even if they are concerned about broader societal harms. For example, a median of 79% of adult mobile phone users across these 11 emerging economies say that their phone has mostly helped their ability to get information and news about important issues, even while about two-thirds of adults say people should be very concerned about exposure to false or incorrect information when using their mobile phones. And in the U.S., a large majority of adults are very or somewhat confident in their ability to recognize made-up news, although nearly two-thirds say it has caused a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current events.