Horowitz: Americans Are Becoming More Concerned About Internet’s Societal Impact

Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Rob Horowitz, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™

An increasing number of online adults have mixed views of the overall societal impact of the internet, according to a recently released poll by the Pew Research Center. While 70% of online adults still say the internet has “mostly been a good thing for society," this is a drop of 6 percentage points from 2014.  Even more telling, the percentage of online adults who say the internet has been a “mixed blessing for society” nearly doubled over the past 4 years with more than 1-in-7 online adults now saying it is a mixed blessing. On the other hand, views of the personal impact of the internet have stayed relatively constant with nearly 9-in-10 online adults continuing to say that it has “mostly been a good thing for me.”

Despite the saturation level of media coverage of threats to privacy posed by the internet and social media, only 1-in-20 online adults who believe that the societal impact of the internet is mostly a bad thing mention it as a reason why.  Far more prevalent concerns for the more than 1-in-6 online adults who believe that the societal impacts are more negative than positive are that the internet isolates us from each other, that people spend too much time on their devices and that the internet and social media facilitate the spread of ‘fake news.”

For the still substantial majority that believes the societal impacts of the internet remain mostly a good thing, more than 6-in-10 volunteered that it makes “information much easier and faster to access.”  Nearly 1-in-4 of those with positive views, “mentioned the ability to connect with other people, or the ways in which the internet helps them keep more closely in touch with friends and family.”

The decline in positive views of the societal impacts of the internet is most pronounced among older Americans.  Among online adults 65 and older, there is a precipitous 14% decline over the past 4 years.  People without a college education continue to have substantially less positive views of the social impacts than those with a college education.

Given the sheer amount of negative publicity surrounding the internet, social media and digital technology over the past couple of years, one might have expected an even sharper drop in positive views of the social impact of this new technology. 

The tempered, somewhat nuanced views of Americans on this topic provides fertile ground for a conversation about the path forward—one that enables us to continue to realize the many benefits of these new and powerful ways to communicate and access information, while minimizing the downsides.  Dare I say the kind of adult conversation that has been mainly missing recently from our politics and public square.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. 

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