Most think social media has made it easier to manipulate and divide people, but also say it informs and raises awareness

A photo of people using cellphones. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
How we did this

This Pew Research Center analysis focuses on technology use and views of internet and social media in the context of democracy and society. The survey was conducted in 19 advanced economies in North America, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

For non-U.S. data, this report draws on nationally representative surveys of 20,944 adults from Feb. 14 to June 3, 2022. All surveys were conducted over the phone with adults in Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. Surveys were conducted face to face in Hungary, Poland and Israel. In Australia, we used a probability-based online panel.

In the United States, we surveyed 3,581 U.S. adults from March 21 to 27, 2022. Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Technology use can be related to the way the survey is conducted. For example, our surveys in Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea are designed to only call mobile phone numbers and interview people on mobile phones because the prevalence of mobile phone ownership is so high. For instance, a 2021 study by the Korea Information Society Development Institute found that 97% of all people in Korea, not just adults, own a mobile phone.

In addition, people who take our survey over the phone may be more likely to use technology compared with those who take the survey in person. In 2019, we conducted simultaneous telephone and in-person surveys in Italy. Both samples were representative of the Italian population with respect to age, gender, education, and region. Respondents who took part in the telephone survey had somewhat higher rates of internet use, smartphone ownership and social media use. We moved from in-person interviews to telephone interviews in Italy in 2020 and Greece in 2021, and do not make direct comparisons to technology use prior to the mode change.

For purposes of comparison, data from Australia is not included in analyses of internet use or phone ownership. Internet use, smartphone and mobile phone ownership, and social media use data in the U.S. comes from a phone survey conducted Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, 2021.

Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and the survey methodology.

As people across the globe have increasingly turned to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms to get their news and express their opinions, the sphere of social media has become a new public space for discussing – and often arguing bitterly – about political and social issues. And in the mind of many analysts, social media is one of the major reasons for the declining health of democracy in nations around the world.

Bar chart showing most say that social media has been good for democracy but has had important negative and positive effects on politics and society

However, as a new Pew Research Center survey of 19 advanced economies shows, ordinary citizens see social media as both a constructive and destructive component of political life, and overall most believe it has actually had a positive impact on democracy. Across the countries polled, a median of 57% say social media has been more of a good thing for their democracy, with 35% saying it has been a bad thing.

There are substantial cross-national differences on this question, however, and the United States is a clear outlier: Just 34% of U.S. adults think social media has been good for democracy, while 64% say it has had a bad impact. In fact, the U.S. is an outlier on a number of measures, with larger shares of Americans seeing social media as divisive.

Dot plot showing more Americans see negative political impact of the internet and social media, compared with other countries surveyed

Even in countries where assessments of social media’s impact are largely positive, most believe it has had some pernicious effects – in particular, it has led to manipulation and division within societies. A median of 84% across the 19 countries surveyed believe access to the internet and social media have made people easier to manipulate with false information and rumors. A recent analysis of the same survey shows that a median of 70% across the 19 nations consider the spread of false information online to be a major threat, second only to climate change on a list of global threats.

Additionally, a median of 65% think it has made people more divided in their political opinions. More than four-in-ten say it has made people less civil in how they talk about politics (only about a quarter say it has made people more civil).

So given the online world’s manipulation, divisiveness and lack of civility, what’s to like? How can this acrimonious sea of false information be good for democracy? Part of the answer may be that it gives people a sense of empowerment at a time when few feel empowered. Majorities in nearly every country surveyed say their political system does not allow people like them to have an influence in politics. In nine nations, including the U.S., seven-in-ten or more express that view.

Online platforms may help people feel less powerless in a few ways. First, social media informs them. As a recent Pew Research Center report highlighted, majorities in these countries believe that staying informed about domestic and international events is part of being a good citizen, and it is clear that people believe the internet and social media make it easier to stay informed. Nearly three-quarters say the internet and social media have made people more informed about current events in their own country as well as in other countries. Young adults are especially likely to hold these views. 

Bar chart showing social media generally seen as effective at influencing politics and policy

Also, most of those surveyed see social media as an effective tool for accomplishing political goals. Majorities in most countries say it is at least somewhat effective at raising public awareness, changing people’s minds about issues, getting elected officials to pay attention to issues and influencing policy decisions.

For some, social media is also an outlet for expression. In South Korea, for example, roughly half of social media users say they sometimes or often post or share things online about political or social issues. However, in the other countries polled, posting about these issues is less common, and in 12 nations four-in-ten or more say they never post about political or social topics. These are among the major findings of a Pew Research Center survey, conducted from Feb. 14 to June 3, 2022, among 24,525 adults in 19 nations.  

Americans most likely to say social media has been bad for democracy

Bar chart showing social media generally seen as good thing for democracy – but not in U.S.

Majorities in most of the nations surveyed believe social media has been a good thing for democracy in their country. Assessments are especially positive in Singapore, Malaysia, Poland, Sweden, Hungary and Israel, where 65% or more hold this view (for data on how international research organizations assess the quality of democracy in the countries surveyed, see Appendix A).

In contrast, Americans are the most negative about the impact of social media on democracy: 64% say it has been bad. Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party (74%) are much more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners (57%) to see the ill effects of social media on the political system.

Half or more also say social media has been bad for democracy in the Netherlands, France and Australia.

In addition to being the most negative about social media’s influence on democracy, Americans are consistently among the most negative in their assessments of specific ways social media has affected politics and society. For example, 79% in the U.S. believe access to the internet and social media has made people more divided in their political opinions, the highest percentage among the 19 countries polled.

Similarly, 69% of Americans say the internet and social media have made people less civil in how they talk about politics – again the highest share among the nations in the study.

Bar chart showing Americans see more negative effects of internet and social media on society

To compare how publics evaluate the impact of the internet and social media on society, we created an index that combines responses to six questions regarding whether the internet makes people: 1) less informed about current events in their country, 2) more divided in their political opinions, 3) less accepting of people from different backgrounds, 4) easier to manipulate with false information and rumors, 5) less informed about current events in other countries, and 6) less civil in the way they talk about politics.

The negative positions on all of these questions were coded as 1 while positive or “no impact” responses were coded as 0. For each respondent, scores on the overall index can range from 0, indicating they see no negative effects of the internet and social media across these questions, to 6, meaning a negative answer to all six questions. See Appendix B for more information about how the index was created.

Looking at the data this way illustrates the degree to which Americans stand out for their negative take on social media’s impact. The average score among U.S. respondents is 3.05, the highest – and therefore the most negative – in the survey. Dutch, Hungarian and Australian respondents are also more negative than others. In contrast, Malaysians, Israelis, Poles and Singaporeans offer less negative assessments. 

Pew Research Center’s research on the internet, social media and technology in the U.S. and around the world

Many of the topics explored in this report have been studied in depth in the U.S. by Pew Research Center’s internet and technology team, which for more than two decades has conducted survey research on the social impact of digital technologies, such as internet and broadbandmobile connectivity and social media. The team’s work has included topics such as privacy and surveillanceactivism and civic engagementdigital dividesthe role of technology in people’s lives and broader societyteens’ and younger children’s use of technology and online dating. In addition, this research has examined the emergence of facial recognition, smart speakers, the gig/sharing economy, people’s attitudes about automation and algorithms and the use of wearable technology. The research has also regularly explored the future of digital life on such issues as the future of work and the rise of artificial intelligence.

The Center has also continually studied technology usage and views about the impact of digital technologies around the world as part of its Global Attitudes research, including reports on topics such as social media usage, smartphone ownership and public opinion in Africa regarding the impact of the internet on society. 

In 2018, the Center conducted an in-depth survey in 11 emerging economies, examining views about mobile technology and social media, as well as attitudes toward diversity in these nations. The Center also conducted focus groups in five countries as part of this study. In many ways, the results of the 2018 study were similar to those in the current survey, in that people in emerging and advanced economies alike believe social media presents both opportunities and dangers. For a comparison of results from the two studies, see “In advanced and emerging economies, similar views on how social media affects democracy and society.”

For the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for conducting surveys in nations where the Center typically interviews respondents in person, rather than via phone or online approaches. Moving forward, we will return to in-person interviewing in countries around the world, which will allow us to explore the impact of technology and other issues in regions that are underrepresented or not represented in this report.

The rapid growth of social media

Bar chart showing large increase in social media use in Japan, France, Poland, the U.S., Spain, the UK and Germany compared with a decade ago
Line charts showing social media use in Japan, France, Poland, the U.S., Spain, the UK, and Germany has grown sharply among older adults in the last decade

Pew Research Center has been asking about social media usage for the past decade, and trend data from several nations polled over that time period highlights the extent to which these platforms have become pervasive in recent years. Growth has been especially dramatic in Japan, where just 30% used social media in 2012, compared with 75% today. Social media has also increased markedly in France, Poland, Spain, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Even in Germany, which lags significantly behind these other nations in social media usage, there has been a notable increase since 2012. 

In every nation surveyed, young people are more likely than others to use social media. However, the age gap has closed over the past decade. When looking again at data from seven nations polled in both 2012 and 2022, growth in usage has been especially steep among 30- to 49-year-olds and those ages 50 and older. For example, nearly all British 18- to 29-year-olds were already social media users in 2012, but there has been significant growth among the two older age groups during the past 10 years.

Young people more likely to see benefits of social media

Overall, young adults are more likely than older adults to use the internet, own a smartphone and use social media. For more information on age differences in technology use, as well as differences by education and income, see the detailed tables accompanying this report.

Dot plot showing young adults see social media’s impact on democracy more positively than older adults in most countries

In addition to using social media more than their older counterparts, young adults often stand out in their views about the impact of social media.

Adults ages 18 to 29 are more likely than those 50 and older to say social media has been good for democracy in 12 out of 19 nations surveyed. For instance, while 87% of 18- to 29-year-old Poles believe social media has had a positive effect on politics, just 46% of those 50 and older agree.

Young adults are also often more likely to say the internet and social media has made people more informed about domestic and international events, and they are especially likely to say these technologies have made people more accepting of others from different backgrounds.

In many cases, young people are also especially likely to consider social media an effective tool in the political realm, particularly regarding its capacity to change people’s minds on social issues and to raise awareness of those issues.