Increasingly, Americans are viewing the internet's impact on society as mixed or negative. Greater isolation, the spread of fake news, data privacy, censorship, and dangers for children are top concerns.
According to new Pew survey results, a whopping majority of Americans (70 percent) view the internet as a positive influence on society. While that is encouraging, that share has fallen six points from just four years ago. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who view the internet as mixed has nearly doubled to 14 percent.
The internet is great for me – even if not for society
Nearly nine in ten Americans (88 percent) say the internet has been great for them personally, but that has fallen slightly from 90 percent in 2014.
Here are a few other interesting other findings from Pew:
What's so good about the internet?
Of those who view the internet through an entirely positive lens, the top reasons include:
62 percent – Makes accessing information easier
23 percent – Helps people connect
6 – Other
Some 9 percent don’t know or refused to answer.
Why is the internet bad or mixed?
25 percent – Isolates people
16 percent – Fake news, misinformation
14 percent – Bad for children
13 percent – Criminal activities
5 percent – Personal information/Privacy
19 percent – Other
An additional seven percent don't know or refused to answer.
How politics and education play a role
One area that no doubt concerns Americans in this polling is how the internet has become a tool for silencing opposing views. (Note: Pew doesn't provide political affiliation specifically, but recent polling indicates it's on Americans' minds.) Conservative commentators Diamond and Silk gained national attention recently when Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled about bias on their platforms.
Education levels also matter as those with less education tend to view the internet more negatively – perhaps because they have more limited access to broadband internet. Pew explains:
As was true in our 2014 survey, college graduates are more likely than those with lower levels of educational attainment to say the internet has had a positive impact on society (and less likely to say it has had a negative impact). Among online adults with a college degree, 81% say the impact of the internet on society has been mostly good and just 7% say it has been mostly bad. By contrast, 65% of those with a high school diploma or less say the internet has had a mostly good impact on society, and 17% say its impact has been mostly bad.
What this all means
This polling is a sweeping change from just a few years ago when Americans – and people worldwide – celebrated the promise that the internet had to disrupt traditional institutions, break down geographic barriers, expand democracy, and open global markets.
Americans may be following Europeans who have grown more distrustful of European institutions in protecting their online data. Now, Europe is implementing rigid privacy regulations on online companies that are too broad and will carry both heavy new compliance costs and penalties which are bound to strangle new competitors.
It's a matter of time before those rules migrate over to American internet users.
As internet companies like Facebook find themselves under the intense microscope of government they have to get a handle on issues like consumer privacy and censorship or the promise of the internet will continue to slip away as companies lose public trust and government replaces freedom with regulations.