Like many Americans, Veselka’s daily life is saturated with the products and services pushed by big technology companies, paid and free. And like many Americans, she simultaneously does not trust the businesses or the people running them when it comes to privacy issues, but can’t simply shake them off, either. She doesn’t like the way Facebook collects her personal data to target ads, or the kinds of videos YouTube offers to her child, and she suspects that her devices are always listening.
“We go into it knowing that we can’t really trust them, but I don’t think we can get around not using it,” Veselka, 30, said of her technology. “I’ve tried giving up Facebook for a period of time. … It’s just not really something you can do and still maintain a regular social life.”
It’s the rare thing that Americans of all ages and across the political spectrum largely seem to agree on: They don’t trust social media services with their information and they view targeted ads as annoying and invasive, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Many Americans use social media — and most use Facebook — but 64 percent say the government should do more to rein in big tech companies.
People are caught in thrall to platforms and devices that increasingly shape the way we communicate, shop, store important information and otherwise manage the most fundamental parts of our lives. With nearly 3 billion monthly users around the world, Facebook can seem particularly inescapable.
Most Americans say they are skeptical that several Internet giants will responsibly handle their personal information and data about their online activity. And an overwhelming majority say they think tech companies don’t provide people with enough control over how their activities are tracked and used. The survey was conducted in November among a random sample of 1,122 adults nationwide.
According to the survey, 72 percent of Internet users trust Facebook “not much” or “not at all” to responsibly handle their personal information and data on their Internet activity. About 6 in 10 distrust TikTok and Instagram, while slight majorities distrust WhatsApp and YouTube. Google, Apple and Microsoft receive mixed marks for trust, while Amazon is slightly positive with 53 percent trusting the company at least “a good amount.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Only 10 percent say Facebook has a positive impact on society, while 56 percent say it has a negative impact and 33 percent say its impact is neither positive nor negative. Even among those who use Facebook daily, more than three times as many say the social network has a negative rather than a positive impact.
People think their devices are listening
Perhaps the most alarming pervasive suspicion is one that is still dismissed by many experts — and the companies themselves — as an urban legend. About 7 in 10 Americans think their phone or other devices are listening in on them in ways they did not agree to. Perhaps given the steady drumbeat of damaging true stories that come out about the companies — mishandling of personal data, unchecked dangers for children, contributing to the destructive spread of misinformation and polarization — secretly activating a microphone doesn’t seem like a big leap.
“My phone is listening,” said Gabriela Adame Torrace without a hint of doubt in her voice. The 46-year-old accountant recalls telling her husband she wanted to go to Disneyland, then opening Facebook and seeing an ad for Disneyland passes. “Anything that I talk about, automatically I know I will see those ads on Facebook.”
Suspected Big Brother-like eavesdropping isn’t even at the top of her list of concerns about the major technology companies, though. The Southern California resident is most worried about how social media pushes people into filter bubbles, where they see and hear people who already think like them, as well as falling down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories. She thinks the companies themselves are behind this, trying to manipulate their users into having certain opinions and points of view.
Still, Torrace says she’s not anti-technology and doesn’t plan to give any of it up. Instead, she spends some of her time online “trying to go to the other side,” looking for posts a social media algorithm might hide from her. The key isn’t quitting technology, but using it with eyes wide open, she said.
Major tech companies including Facebook and Amazon have denied accessing microphones without permission, and experts say it’s likely that they instead have enough personal data to accurately predict what you’re interested in.
Social media companies are trusted the least
Despite the catchall term “Big Tech,” the biggest technology companies are not all viewed in the same negative light. The businesses that sell goods or services directly to people are viewed more favorably, like Apple and Amazon. There’s less mystery about how they’re making money off customers, and there’s not as much of a barrier between the organizations and the individuals who pay them.
It’s the social media companies, where the services are offered up ostensibly free, that unsettle Americans more. After years of privacy experts warning that “if it’s free, you’re the product,” perhaps the reality of what that really means has started to be fully absorbed. Tech companies have no-cost products such as social media apps, search engines, dating apps and email. In exchange, they collect data and feed the online marketing and advertising industry while profiting off it.
About 8 in 10 Internet users say that tech companies do not provide enough control over how information about their activities are tracked and used, including majorities across age, race, education and partisan groups.
Targeted ads — the entire point of all that data collection — are widely disliked. More than 8 in 10 Internet users say they see targeted ads at least somewhat often. Among those who see them, 82 percent say they are annoying and 74 percent say they are invasive. And while companies sometimes defend targeted ads as helping people find products they want, 66 percent of Internet users who see them online say they are not helpful.
Criticisms of the data-for-usage trade-off have increased since 2012, when a Pew Research survey found 59 percent saying it represented an “unjustified use of people’s private information.” Today, 73 percent of Americans hold this view, including majorities of Americans across political and demographic groups, according to the Post-Schar School poll.
“They think free enterprise means ‘I can do anything I want, anytime I want,’” said Ken Dorsch, a 76-year-old retiree in Tulsa. “We want to make money more than we want to be responsible for what we’re doing.”
Dorsch uses Facebook to follow the news from his church groups, and to keep up with friends and relatives. He has a computer, orders through Amazon, uses a free Google email account, and has dabbled in Twitter but didn’t quite get it. He especially hates how many ads fill up his Google searches, Facebook feed and even Amazon results.
Just last week he thought about quitting Facebook and came to the same conclusion as many people: It is too necessary for staying in touch and being part of a community. Where else would he go?
Looking for fixes, from government regulation to self-regulation
“The fact that people continue to use Facebook doesn’t mean they like it,” said Jack Goldstone, who directs the Center for the Study of Social Change, Institutions and Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government. “It’s not unexpected that people would continue to find ways to interact with a program, even if they’re deeply suspicious of its broader social impact. That’s how we’re wired.”
What is striking about the results of the survey, says Goldstone, is how distrust of Big Tech unifies Republicans and Democrats, even though they may have different reasons for disliking the companies and their policies.
Overall, 64 percent of Americans say the government should do more to regulate how Internet companies handle privacy issues, a sharp increase from 38 percent who said the same in the 2012 Pew survey. Democratic support for the government doing more to regulate how Internet companies handle privacy grew from 45 percent in 2012 to 82 percent this year, while Republican support is up from 30 percent to 53 percent, and support from independents is up from 38 percent to 66 percent.
That’s a high percentage for Republicans, a party traditionally against government regulation. In a free market — a hallmark of Republican thinking that calls for minimal government involvement in the economy — people can simply choose not to use a company that they dislike. Yet few people appear to be opting to leave Facebook, quit TikTok, switch from Amazon or power down smartphones over concerns about data privacy.
Dorsch, the Oklahoma retiree and an independent, would like to see the companies try to regulate themselves, and Veselka, the Texas mother, thinks that the government doesn’t have a place trying to create laws that specifically control what private companies do. “There definitely needs to be changes or some sort of oversight but not the government’s,” she said. Some responsibility, they say, falls to individuals.
“I look at [regulation] as a very good thing, but I don’t know exactly what that would look like,” said Democrat David Noon, a history professor at the University of Alaska Southeast who has similarly lost trust in the big tech companies, especially social media. “I think about the long history of regulation. Most of it is government agencies trying to monitor industries that they don’t really know that well. And as a result, whatever instruments of regulation they put in place tend to get captured by the organization being regulated.”
Nearly 8 in 10 Internet users take at least some precautions to limit the information that websites, search engines or apps gather about them, according to the Post-Schar School poll.
A 57 percent majority say they have changed privacy settings on websites, such as not allowing tracking, and half say they altered the privacy settings on their phone or apps. Most say they have deleted their Web history (56 percent), while nearly 4 in 10 say they changed their browser settings (39 percent) or used a private browsing setting such as “incognito mode” (37 percent). About 1 in 4 (26 percent) say they have used a virtual private network — software for creating a more private Internet connection — to protect their privacy.
Facebook has been plagued by privacy issues for years, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the recent revelations by whistleblower Francis Haugen. Yet more than 7 in 10 Internet users are on Facebook, with over half saying they use it daily.
Noon, the history professor, is in the minority. He has actually quit Facebook. The breaking point came around Thanksgiving 2016, a few weeks after the election. He was looking at the Facebook account he’d had for nearly 10 years and saw nothing but a toxic stew of political infighting, splintering families and conspiracy theories. He decided to deactivate his account and says he hasn’t looked back.
“In my most cynical moments I feel like at a certain point, people in the company must have realized just how corrosive the platform was, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere,” said Noon, 51. “They’ve always seemed to be playing catch-up. It’s a company that responds to publicity surrounding its mistakes, its blind spots — they try to keep a lid on it as long as they can.”
He still has a mostly unused Instagram account, and spends time on Twitter.
At home in Texas, Veselka tries to have some rules to protect her family. Her daughter isn’t allowed to have her own tablet or unfettered access to streaming sites or other apps. And while she rarely worries about the tech gear around her house listening, she does avoid microphone-equipped devices when having private conversations.
“The only time I think about it actively is when my husband and I are having a conversation about politics. We’re a little more libertarian,” Veselka said with a laugh. “If we’re talking about something sketchy, lets take it outside.”
The poll was conducted by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University Nov. 4-22, among a random national sample of 1,122 adults including 1,058 Internet users. Respondents were contacted by mail through a random sample of U.S. households and completed the survey online or by mailing back a questionnaire. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for overall results, and four points among Internet users. Sampling, data collection and tabulation conducted by SSRS of Glen Mills, Pa.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.