Richard Wike Asked Citizens in 19 Countries Whether Social Media is Good for Democracy

Richard Wike

Richard Wike is director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center. He conducts research and writes about international public opinion on a variety of topics, such as America’s global image, the rise of China, democracy, and globalization. His latest report (coauthored with Laura Silver, Janell Fetterolf, Christine Huang, Sarah Austin, Laura Clancy and Sneha Gubbala) is   “Social Media Seen as Mostly Good for Democracy Across Many Nations, But U.S. is a Major Outlier.”

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When people think about social media, they think about the upsides of it. It speaks to what they want in democracy that they’re not getting. They feel disconnected, voiceless, and not empowered. So, if there’s ways that social media can play a role in empowering people and giving them a voice and holding accountable leaders that they don’t think listen to them, those are upsides and that’s some of the reasons why you get more positive evaluations of social media than we might think.

Richard Wike

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:47
  • Why Survey Research – 2:47
  • Views on Social Media and Democracy – 5:27
  • Differences by Age – 16:35
  • Social Media Engagement – 24:23

Podcast Transcript

Today Pew Research Center released a new report. It reads, “Social Media Seen as Mostly Good for Democracy Across Many Nations, But U.S. is a Major Outlier.” I think it will catch many political pundits off guard. After so many years of negative headlines, many of us simply accept the media narrative of social media as a threat to democracy. But this new report shows people in many countries don’t see it quite the same way. 

I got the chance to talk to Richard Wike a few days before the report was released to talk over the major findings. Richard is the director of global attitudes research at the Pew Research Center and one of the report’s main authors. I’ve followed Richard’s work at Pew for years. His survey research regularly explores the opinions of people about democracy, populism, and a range of topics we discuss on this podcast. His work is global so it’s high level survey research that allows us to notice global trends as well as differences between countries. I’ve included links to the new report and Richard’s work at the Pew Research Center in the show notes. 

If you enjoy this episode, please give the show a 5 star rating on Apple or Spotify. Also please consider mentioning Democracy Paradox on your best of lists for the end of the year. It’s hard for independent podcasts to stand out, so I’m relying on listeners like you to mention it on social media, blogs, and by word of mouth. Like always you can find a full transcript at www.democracyparadox.com. But for now… Here is my conversation with Richard Wike…

jmk

Richard Wike, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Richard Wike

Thanks for having me.

jmk

So, Richard, this latest report I think is incredibly timely. It touches on issues about social media and democracy. Obviously, those are subjects that are always relevant in politics today. But I think with a lot of what’s going on with Twitter and many other companies right now, I think it’s definitely on everybody’s mind.

Still, I’ve had a lot of bright minds on this podcast that have shared their thoughts about social media and its impact on democracy. But this report is going to be different. This conversation is going to be different because we’re not so much talking about your ideas about social media and democracy, but your findings from talking to other people about their ideas. They’re just everyday people’s opinions and insights. So, why is it important for us to survey the opinions of ordinary people about those same subjects that we’re oftentimes talking to more accomplished people about?

Richard Wike

Well, it’s important to talk to experts. Certainly, that’s valuable. There’s a lot of people who have expertise on either democracy or on the impact of technology on democracy in society. It’s worth hearing from them about what they’ve learned from their research and their work. But I think there is a value in hearing from ordinary citizens. Democracy is important to their lives and to their countries. What do they think about what’s working and not working when it comes to democracy? Technology is something they’re using every day in their lives. What do they think about it? What are its good impacts and it’s bad impacts. I think it’s really important to add the public’s voice to these debates. Again, not to disrespect experts of all sorts, they’re important. But you know what do average citizens think?

They’re experiencing this. You know, we believe in democracy philosophically. We believe average citizens should have a voice in what happens in their country. Polling plays some small role hopefully in giving them that kind of voice. So, on this question, on lots of different questions, I think it’s important to hear from people. So, that’s what this report does. It’s not what I think or what the authors necessarily think about the impact of social media. It reflects what people we’ve talked to in 19 different countries think about the impact of social media, on society, and on their politics.

jmk

It definitely feels like a more democratic way to talk about democracy. Right?

Richard Wike

Yeah. If you’re going to talk about democracy, probably asking some ordinary citizens what they think is not a bad idea.

jmk

So, let’s talk about the report. Why do people regard social media as mostly good for democracy?

Richard Wike

Yeah, I think the kind of top line finding here is an interesting one. We ask a pretty simple question. Do you think that social media is a good thing or a bad thing for democracy in your country? It varies a little bit depending on who you ask and where you ask the question. But the overall finding is that most people in the survey actually say that social media is having a good effect on democracy in their countries. It’s 57% essentially across the 19 countries that we surveyed. Now, there are, again, differences across countries. The most important one is that Americans look differently on this.

Most Americans say that social media is having a bad impact on democracy in the United States. There are other ways we can talk about it. In other surveys we conduct, Americans look a little bit different in some ways and are a little bit more negative in some ways about the way politics is working in their countries. So, you see that on the question we asked. You see it here. But the overall finding across most of the countries is that people when asked will say it’s having a mostly good impact. It doesn’t mean it’s having a solely positive impact. However, people see both real upsides and real downsides when it comes to the impact of social media on politics.

They say that on the good side, it’s making them more informed about what’s happening in their country. It’s making them more informed about what’s happening in other countries. Many say it’s actually making people more accepting of people who are different from them, but they see negatives as well. It’s making it easier to manipulate people with false information and rumors. It’s leading to more divisiveness politically in their country. A lot of people say it’s making political discourse less civil. So, overall, people say, it’s mostly good. But there’s a lot of negatives too. So, it’s a complicated picture. I think people, when they look at social media, see a lot of good things and a lot of bad things in terms of how it’s influencing what’s happening in their countries.

jmk

So, you mentioned that the United States is a major outlier. And you’re American. I’m American. Did it catch you off guard because of the way that social media is discussed in our circles or did this kind of confirm some assumptions you might have had based on some prior research?

Richard Wike

Well, the, the fact that the US stands out fits in with some other things that we’ve seen. So, in some ways I think that US number is a striking number. We’ve got some graphics in this report where we plot out how the US compares to other countries. It’s a pretty striking visual. But in lots of ways, it’s probably not too surprising because if you look at other questions that we’ve asked on other surveys, you see that Americans are sort of comparatively unhappy with the way politics is functioning. One example is a question we’ve asked a few times during the pandemic: What’s been the impact of the pandemic on society? Are people more divided than they were before the pandemic or are they more united? The US has consistently stood out as the country most likely to say we’re more divided than we were before the pandemic.

We have some questions about how divided people are politically in a country or how divided they are along racial or ethnic lines and when we do that, Americans, again, stand out as either the most negative about the degree of division in their society or very close to the top of the list when it comes to being negative about how divided we are politically or how divided we are along racial or ethnic lines. So, those are just a couple of examples, but it happens again and again when we ask about your view of politics in society. Right now, at least, Americans stand out some pretty negative ways and they stand out when you’ve asked them about the impact of social media on their politics.

jmk

I was struck by how dramatic the difference is. I mean, the difference between a country like the United States and even just the median. It’s almost twice as many Americans considered a bad thing when compared to some of the outliers on the opposite end like a Poland or Singapore or even Hungary. It’s sometimes four times as much or three times as much think that it’s a bad thing. Do you feel that it’s important for Americans to recognize the dramatic differences that they have in terms of their views about social media and politics from the rest of the world? Because looking at your report, it is a significant and dramatic difference between the views in the United States and the views in other parts of the world.

Richard Wike

I think one of the advantages of doing comparative survey research is you can look at a trend across countries and you can look at your own country and say, ‘Okay, how do we fit in?’ You know, that that’s true of the United States. It’s true of any of the countries that we study. So, I do think it can illuminate some ways in which what you see in the United States in terms of trends and patterns is similar to what you see in some other countries. But there’s some ways in which we actually stand out too. So, I do think it can kind of illuminate issues or challenges we have in the US. There’s certainly the kind of divisions we see in the US along partisan, ideological lines.

We see those divisions in other countries too, but they tend to be even sharper in the United States on many questions we ask. You’ll see the biggest differences between people on the right and people on the left in the United States, for example. So, you can get a sense of how divided Americans are essentially by looking at our data from the US. But then it puts it in an even stronger relief when you look at how Americans compare to others around the world.

jmk

One of the things that caught me off guard was that some of the countries that have lower scores for internet freedom according to Freedom House were actually some of the ones that felt that social media was a better thing for their democracy, countries like Singapore, countries like Hungary, for instance, even Poland to some extent. Do you think that there’s any connection there that the idea of limiting how much information is on the internet is actually making people think that it’s more positive just because they’re not seeing as much of the information?

Richard Wike

Yeah, it’s a great question. I’m not entirely certain I know the answer. But I’ve seen some of the same patterns in looking at our data. We actually include some information in the report about where these countries stack up on ratings of the quality of their democracy around the world which I think is an important thing to keep in mind. We’re looking at the data from places like Freedom House, Economist Intelligence Unit, International Idea, V-Dem. These organizations are very good at rating the health of democracy around the world. It could be that somebody who’s living in a country that has a low rating for democracy sees the internet and sees social media as a public space where some free expression is possible and overall it has potentially, at least, a good impact on the quality of democracy in their country. That’s a bit speculative.

So, I think that’s a question we need to dig deeper into. How do these places that have seen democratic erosion, how are people in those countries, using this public space of social media and why in some cases do they actually think it’s a good thing for democracy?

jmk

So, one of the other countries that I felt had relatively optimistic findings was Sweden who actually has incredibly high scores according to Freedom House and others for how democratic the country is. But it was interesting that Sweden was the only Nordic country, one of those Nordic countries that gets incredibly high scores. I wonder whether we’d see the same type of results if we looked at some countries like Denmark, countries like Norway, maybe even Finland. Is that something that was on your mind as to whether or not you should include those countries in future research?

Richard Wike

I think it would be great to have more of Sweden’s neighbors included, like you said. We have surveyed Denmark in the past. We’ve never done Norway, but it would be great to include it to see if this is something that is true in those countries as well. If you look at other survey research organizations, you’ll often see on measures of life satisfaction, for example, Sweden, Norway, Denmark all bunched together. So, I imagine you might see some similar trends in those places as well.

If you look at Europe broadly across a lot of different topics that we look at in our research, you do often see a somewhat rough North-South divide. People in Sweden and sometimes in the Netherlands, although not necessarily in this report, Germany, more Northern European countries are a little bit more satisfied with the way their political system is working. Then there is more unhappiness often in Southern European nations like Spain, Italy, or Greece – a lot of places that were hit hard by the financial crisis more than a decade ago now. You still see some aftereffects of that. They are not happy with the economy. They are not happy with the function of their political system quite often.

So, there are some regional differences within Europe. You see that a little bit in this study in the way that Sweden kind of jumps out as being a little more positive in a lot of these questions.

jmk

Did you get the impression that social media made people more satisfied with democracy in their country or maybe some people less satisfied? Or was social media just a way to think about democracy and to say, ‘Hey, it’s a way to interact and engage in politics within my country’?

Richard Wike

I think it’s hard just based on this data to kind of disentangle the causal arrows. Is social media kind of affecting what you think about democracy or is how you see democracy in general shaping how you view social media? My guess is it’s a lot of the latter. How people feel about the impact social media is having an effect on politics or just in general, how they view social media. In some ways, I think it reflects what they think about what’s happening to politics in their country whether they see a lot of divisiveness in their country or declining level of stability in their country. They believe that social media is part of that story.

I think in lots of ways there’s a tendency of social media to amplify and intensify things. It doesn’t necessarily change how people view something or necessarily change a trend that’s happening in a given country, but it intensifies it. If there’s partisan division to begin with, social media can amplify that partisan division. If the civility is declining, social media amplifies that declining civility. So, I think social media’s role is to amplify a trend that was already there to begin with.

jmk

One of the big findings I felt was the way that people differ between age cohorts within this report. The fact that younger people tend to see more positive aspects, have more positive feelings about social media. But at the same time they also use it a lot. Tell me a little bit more about that. What were some of the surprising findings that you found when you broke this down based on differences by age?

Richard Wike

Part of the story on age as you said, is that younger people, of course, use this technology more. They’re more likely to use social media. They’re more likely to use smartphones and things like that. So, often when people use this technology, they’re more likely to actually see it having a positive impact on society. In some places young people see both negative and positive outcomes. But overall young people, which we defined in this study as people between the ages of 18-29 are more likely to say that social media is having a positive effect on democracy.

They’re more likely to think that it’s leading people to be more accepting of others. They’re also more likely, in some cases, to say that social media is effective in the political arena and does things to get public officials to pay attention to issues and things like that. So, they do tend to see the more positive impacts from social media. Part of that at least, is tied to the fact that they use it more often. There’s also some data in here based on long running trend questions we’ve asked about social media usage and about technology usage more generally. I think one of the things that’s interesting to me is it shows that in some cases, the age gap when it comes to technology usage is shrinking in many countries.

If you go back and look at our question about using social media ten years ago when we first started asking about it, often, you already had pretty high levels of young adults using social media at that point. Maybe it’s increased a little bit over the years, but what’s often happened is older people with middle age and older adults who now are more and more likely to use social media, they’re more likely to own a smartphone and they’re catching up with the younger crowd.

There’s still an age gap, but that age gap is actually shrinking a little over time as more and more older people are using these types of technologies which I think is an interesting trend that we can forget about when we think about the fact that young people are online more. They’re using this technology more. That’s still true. In some cases, the older generations are catching up with them a bit.

jmk

Wasn’t South Korea possibly the best example of that where I think it was 100% or 98% of the older cohort, those over 50 years old, had a smartphone and maybe engaged in social media? It really caught me off guard that that large of a percentage in any country would be that engaged at that age.

Richard Wike

Yeah, I think our surveys and other surveys as well would highlight the fact that South Korea just really stands out as one of the places in the world that just has extremely high levels of technology usage. So, part of the story there is that in South Korea it’s older adults who are also very likely to use these types of technologies. It’s a place where, for example, when we do a phone survey, we do all the calling on smart phones. In a lot of places, we still do some small share of our interviewing on landlines, because there still are people who don’t have a smartphone.

However, in South Korea, just about everybody’s got a cell phone, just about everybody got a smartphone, so you don’t even have to bother with doing the landline calling. So, it’s another indicator essentially of how much a place like South Korea stands out.

jmk

So, you said that you’ve been doing similar questions for the past 10 years and that gives you a chance to be able to compare people as they move from one cohort to the next. So, people who used to be between 18 and 29, ten years ago are now in the next age bracket, which I think was 30 to 49. Are you seeing that those people are keeping the same attitudes as they get older, more or less? Or are you seeing that those people’s opinions are changing as they move into that older cohort?

Richard Wike

Well, we’re all getting older. Right? And that certainly changes these usage numbers a little bit. Because as you said, people who twenty years ago when we first asked about using the internet, for example, people have moved on to an older age group now. Now that age group is much more likely than it was twenty years ago to say, ‘Okay, we use the internet.’ Same thing is true on social media and other things. We’ve done less tracking of attitudes among cohorts on these questions. I mean, for some of these questions, it’s the first time really we’ve asked in these countries about the impact of social media on politics.

So, that’s something we want to keep tracking over time. We want to see whether as people age, for example, do their views shift about the impact of social media? That’s something, honestly, we really haven’t been able to do yet that we’ll wan to do moving forward.

jmk

Yeah, I’ll be honest. The impression that I got was it seemed like there was some shift because it looks like people are much more comfortable with it at older and older ages than they were in the past based on some of the graphs you gave and some of the other information. Even though the questions aren’t always the same, it does seem that people who are over 50 are more comfortable than they probably would’ve been 10 years ago and it definitely seems like people who are between 30 and 49 are much closer to the attitudes 10 years ago than to somebody who was 18 to 29. It seems like those attitudes are carrying forward rather than becoming more conservative as they get older.

Richard Wike

I think that’s fair. You see people who either have grown up with technology or they’ve had it for a while now and they’re, as you said, more comfortable with it. Sometimes what stands out in terms of being more negative about the impact of technology is the oldest generation. Maybe it’s people who are 50 plus who have never been as engaged online as a younger generation. So, I think that’s probably true too. People, as they’re getting a little older, tend to carry some of their attitudes and behaviors along with them. It’s changing the overall numbers in terms of how people feel about technology, because people have experienced it more.

jmk

Do you think that younger generations are more comfortable with the potential for fake news and the potential for manipulation online and that’s part of the reason why they feel that the benefits outweigh the costs, because they are prepared to deal with the costs and that they feel that they have the tools to be able to inoculate themselves?

Richard Wike

I think that’s a good possibility. The younger generations are more aware of the upsides and downsides. They’re very aware that these technologies can be used to manipulate people. They’re very aware that these technologies can be used to divide people, but they’re also a bit more optimistic about the upsides, maybe than the older generation. They nonetheless feel it can manipulate. But it can also hold leaders accountable. It’s effective at bringing issues to the attention of politicians. It’s effective at getting things done in the policy-making arena. It might make individuals easier to manipulate, but it also informs them and empowers them in different ways. So, they are overall more optimistic. Because even though they see those negative sides, they also are more likely to recognize these positive, more empowering aspects of technology and the ability of technology to hold leaders to account.

jmk

So, one thing that caught me off guard, and maybe it shouldn’t have, was the fact that you found that some of the people who are the most engaged politically are also the least satisfied with democracy. Did that surprise you?

Richard Wike

Not necessarily. You know, sometimes what we find when it comes to satisfaction with democracy is a lot of it can be at any given moment driven by how you feel about the ruling party. If I don’t like the ruling party in my country, I might be dissatisfied at the way our democracy is functioning. So, I may be very politically active, but in opposition to whoever’s running the country right now. I might be unhappy at the way our democracy is functioning. So, it can go either way. I mean, some people might be unhappy with democracy and they just kind of disconnect. There are a lot of people who are very involved, but just not happy with how things are functioning right now.

jmk

So, a few years ago you wrote this article. It was in the Journal of Democracy. The first line was, “Liberal Democracy is experiencing a crisis of confidence.” It makes me wonder whenever I see that people are dissatisfied with democracy in their own country, whether or not it’s that they’re dissatisfied with democracy or if they’re not satisfied with democracy, but just dissatisfied with the outcomes of democracy at that moment. How do you kind of interpret it when you see results like that? Do you feel like people are still satisfied with democracy on the whole or are they just frustrated with the outcomes at the moment?

Richard Wike

I think that question that we and others ask about how satisfied and dissatisfied are you with the way democracy is working in your country? That particular question is much more about this moment and how things are working rather than tapping into democratic values. Sometimes you might be especially dissatisfied with the way democracy is working because you don’t think it’s living up to the principles that you hold. It’s not living up to your democratic values. So, that particular question I think is more about the performance of democracy right now rather than that I don’t like democracy as a system. In fact, sometimes what we see is it’s people who really do care about those principles, who are the most unhappy with the way it’s functioning at the moment.

jmk

So, Richard, how many people really discuss politics on social media?

Richard Wike

Well, in terms of posting your own views or sharing something about politics or social issues, it’s a minority of people who do that. Our report highlights that it’s significantly less than half in the countries where we survey saying I often or even sometimes post my own views about politics and society online. So, it’s important to remember that when you’re consuming social media. The people who are out there putting their views online are a minority of people. They may not be representative of everybody else, but that’s still part of the appeal of social media. It does give people this outlet for expression at a time when people want their voice to be heard.

For some, at least, it’s a platform for doing that. But it’s important to remember that for most people when they’re going online, maybe they’re consuming information, maybe they’re posting about other things, but they’re not necessarily going there to post their own views about politics.

jmk

So, if people aren’t really talking about politics on social media that often, how much of an impact can social media really have for democracy, whether it’s for good or for evil?

Richard Wike

Even though most people maybe aren’t regularly going to a social media platform to post and share their views about politics, people do seem to think it is an effective arena for achieving things in politics. People say they think social media is actually pretty good at raising awareness about an issue. It can be pretty good at changing people’s minds about an issue. It’s effective in terms of making politicians pay attention to a topic. It can have some influence in policy making. So, what we see in the survey is there’s a lot of people who say, ‘Well, I don’t necessarily go online and share a lot about politics, but when I’m looking at the impact of social media, I do think it’s actually pretty effective in raising awareness, maybe even bringing about some change in the political arena.’

So, just because people aren’t doing it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t think it’s a useful space for getting things done in politics at a time when people are often frustrated that politics isn’t as responsive to public opinion as maybe they’d like it to be.

jmk

Do you think that number might be a little bit under reported, because some things that really are political actions might not be viewed as such? Like maybe talking about the way that your school is currently being run or talking about things within your neighborhood could actually be political acts, but they’re not viewed as such because they’re not involving political parties. They’re not necessarily involving the national political scene. They’re involving things like cleaning up your neighborhood. They’re involving things like trying to do something about the high school football stadium, whatever it might be. Do you think sometimes people underestimate how involved they really are in politics?

Richard Wike

I think that’s a great point that when we ask them a question about posting their views about politics or social issues, they might have a pretty limited view of what constitutes that kind of issue. As you said, sometimes an act or an issue in their local community might really be pretty political in nature, but they’re not thinking of it that way. So, I think you’re probably right that people are sharing information online, posting views about things that if you want to take a more expansive definition of politics, we would say, they actually are engaging politically online, even if they don’t necessarily think of it that way.

jmk

What caught you off guard the most when you’re looking at all the information, when you’re looking at the research, when you’re looking at the raw data? What caught you and your team off guard and you thought was a real insight from this specific report?

Richard Wike

I mean, the overall finding is actually a pretty striking one. That most people we surveyed say that social media’s actually having a good impact on democracy in their country. Again, there’s differences. The US is an outlier, but in terms of the overall finding across the countries we surveyed, I think that’s a pretty striking one. So, even though they recognize that there’s a lot of negative aspects of social media, they say it’s divisive, they say it’s leading to less stability, and it’s making people easier to manipulate. So, trying to understand why is that. I don’t think our survey completely tells us everything about that, but it gives us some hints at least.

We have another question in there that taps into the idea of political efficacy. Do you think people like you can have an influence on politics in our country and for the most part, people say no, they don’t feel empowered. So, there are ways in which social media and this public space that it creates empowers people. They say that it makes me more informed for example, if you think that being informed is part of being empowered. You know, I’m informed about what’s happening in my country and what’s happening around the world through social media and they see it as being somewhat effective as we talked about. It helps for raise awareness. It can help have an influence over policy makers. For some people it’s an avenue of expression.

Some people do engage in sharing their views about politics and maybe even issues that they don’t even think of as we just discussed that that really are political. So, at a time when people don’t feel very empowered, they feel very disconnected from elites, they don’t feel like the system’s very responsive to their views, they don’t feel listened to, in some ways, social media can help address some of those concerns about how democracy’s functioning. Again, people see lots of problems. But they see some good things there too. I think, for me that that was an interesting set of findings that jumped out from this data. It was a good reminder that there are positive things people see about social media.

It’s easy to focus on the negative components of it and we should focus on the negative components of it. But that was the value to me in going out and conducting the surveys. When you ask ordinary citizens, you’re reminded that they say, ‘Okay, wait. There are actually some good things here too.’ So, social media’s not going anywhere. These technologies aren’t going anywhere. So, I think we need to think about what it is people want to see less of. What do they want to see more of from these technologies? Hopefully this survey illuminates some of that.

jmk

So, on that note, do you on the whole feel more or less optimistic about social media’s influence on democracy after the study?

Richard Wike

Well, I guess I’m not sure if I feel more optimistic, but I’m reminded of some of these positive things that people see in social media. For me it ties into some of the broader findings we’ve had about democracy in our surveys. You mentioned that we’ve done some work in the past on a crisis of confidence in democracy. I think that our work on democracy around the world has found that it’s a popular idea. You ask people about representative democracy and they say, ‘Yes, that’s a good way to govern our country by and large.’ But they’re dissatisfied quite often with how it’s actually functioning. We also see that people are often open to nondemocratic alternatives as well.

So, they say they like representative democracy, but they’ll say that they are open to a strong leader model as well or for a minority of people in many countries, they’re open to even something like military rule. We see that democracy is a popular idea, but people aren’t always as committed to it as we might think or we might hope. So, that lack of commitment opens up political space for authoritarians to potentially take advantage of and what’s driving that lack of commitment is sometimes, again, dissatisfaction with the way democracy functions. People feel out of touch with political elites. They don’t feel listened to and they want a stronger voice in politics. Quite often we see that in lots of different ways in our surveys.

For me, that’s where social media comes in. Okay, at least here is a public space that people can engage in. You can express your views. You can potentially hold politicians accountable. You can inform yourself about what’s happening. Again, lots of negative aspects to it as well. But in some ways, for me, this survey points out areas in which when people think about social media, they think about the upsides of it. It speaks to what they want in democracy that they’re not getting. They feel disconnected, voiceless, and not empowered.

So, if there’s ways that social media can play a role in empowering people and giving them a voice and holding accountable leaders that they don’t think listens to them, those are upsides and that’s some of the reasons why you get maybe more positive evaluations of social media than we might think before we looked at this survey.

jmk

At the same time, Americans still have very negative feelings about social media and its impact on democracy. Do you think that in future surveys that we’ll see some regression to the mean? That American opinions are going to come back closer to the rest of the world or do you think that there’s a sense of actual American exceptionalism that America’s just different from everybody else?

Richard Wike

Well, I definitely would hesitate to predict what’s going to happen with American public opinion. It’s tough to predict it. But I think the issue right now is Americans do stand out in certain ways, probably driven by a lot of things, but certainly part of the story is just how polarized Americans are. You know, polarization, fractionalization, however you want to think about it. Those trends are happening in other countries too, but they’re especially a strong in the United States. Some of that’s because of our unique party system and the changes that have happened to that party system over the years.

You probably have people on your show come on and talk about this. A lot of scholars have looked at polarization in the United States and how different types of identities have become stacked up on top of our partisan identities in ways that didn’t always used to be true back when the two parties were these heterogeneous coalitions and now they’ve become much more consistent and homogeneous. That’s one of the things that’s fueling all the partisan divisions in the United States. So, part of the division, in some ways are different from what we see in other countries around the world. Other countries are experiencing a lot of political tumult and have a lot of political challenges. But they usually don’t have the kind of polarization that we have.

Right now, that’s what making the United States stand out. So, unless that lessons, I think you’re going to continue to see the US look a little bit different in our survey.

jmk

Well, Richard, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a real pleasure to be able to read some of the work that you do. It’s just very centered on the data and based on trying to poll what people think and we’re going to explain what it is that they’re telling us. Sometimes that’s very different than the emphasis on interpretation and the emphasis on trying to find some key insights. Sometimes the insights are right in front of us and they’re exactly what people are telling us. So, thank you so much for the great work that you do over at Pew Research Center.

Richard Wike

Thank you. It’s always great to hear people find value in the work and I really appreciate the chance to come on and talk about it a little bit today.

Key Links

Social Media Seen as Mostly Good for Democracy Across Many Nations, But U.S. is a Major Outlier” by Richard Wike, Laura Silver, Janell Fetterolf, Christine Huang, Sarah Austin, Laura Clancy and Sneha Gubbala

Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence” by Richard Wike and Janell Fetterolf in the Journal of Democracy

Learn more about Richard Wike at the Pew Research Center

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