Publics in Emerging Economies Worry Social Media Sow Division, Even as They Offer New Chances for Political Engagement. Many who use social media say they regularly see false and misleading content along with new ideas.
Across 11 emerging economies polled, majorities in most countries say social media have increased the risk that people might be manipulated by domestic politicians, a new Pew Research Center report finds. And half or more in these countries think social media platforms increase the risk that foreign powers might interfere in their country’s elections.
Majorities in most nations surveyed also say technology has made it easier to manipulate people with rumors and false information.
The Center’s new report is the second in a series exploring the impact of digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam.
The survey finds public attitudes toward social media and other communication technologies are far from universally negative. Majorities in nine countries say social media have increased the influence of ordinary people in the political process, while majorities in every country surveyed say access to technology has made people more informed about current events.
But these perceived benefits to individual political engagement are often accompanied by concerns about the perils and limitations of technology as a tool for political action or information-seeking. Most notably, an 11-country median of 72% say technology has made people easier to manipulate with false information and rumors. And, in nine countries, half or more say access to digital technologies has made people more divided in their political opinions.
“There is a widespread view that digital connectivity – and social media in particular – seems to amplify almost every aspect of political and civic life in these emerging economies,” said Associate Director of Internet and Technology Research Aaron Smith, one of the main authors of the report. “And this impact runs in both directions. Many people believe the internet and social media have helped to politically empower people in their countries, even as they feel these tools have exposed their societies to potentially harmful manipulation from domestic or foreign actors.”
Key findings in the report include
Social media users say they regularly encounter false and misleading information on these platforms.
Majorities of social media users in 10 countries say they frequently or occasionally see information on these platforms that seems obviously false or untrue, and majorities of users in six countries regularly encounter content there that makes them feel negatively about groups of people who are different than they are.
More generally, relatively few adults in these countries place a great deal of trust in the news and information they get on social media.
But alongside these concerns, large majorities of social media users in most countries surveyed also say they frequently or occasionally encounter content there that introduces them to new ideas.
And in most countries, pluralities of social media users say the news and information they get on these platforms is more up to date and informative compared with other sources.
In most countries, larger shares say technology is causing people to be more divided than say it has caused them to be open to different groups of people. Publics in these countries are conflicted over the extent to which technology is broadening people’s personal horizons or causing their politics to become more tribal – and many see elements of both. An 11-country median of 52% say technology has made people more accepting of those who have different views than they do, while a median of 58% say it has made people more divided in their political opinions.
People tend to be more comfortable talking politics in person than in digital spaces. Even as social media have offered citizens new ways to encounter and share information, more people are comfortable speaking about politics in person than via social media or mobile phones.
An 11-country median of 65% say they feel very or somewhat comfortable talking about politics face-to-face, compared with a median of 46% who feel comfortable discussing politics on social media and 42% who feel that way about discussing politics on mobile devices.
Those who are most attuned to the potential benefits of digital technology are often also most aware of its downsides.
It is not simply the case that some people feel negatively about technology while others feel positively.
Instead, for many these views go hand-in-hand. For instance, the view that technology has made people more informed is often accompanied by the view that technology has made people easier to manipulate with rumors and false information. Similarly, the perception that technology has made people more accepting of each other goes together with the view that it has made people more divided in their political opinions. Social media users and those with higher levels of education tend to be especially attuned to both the positive and negative impacts of technology on political and civic life.
These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report.
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder.