Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many Americans have expressed concern about the presence of misinformation online, particularly on social media. Recent congressional hearings and investigations by social media sites and academic researchers have suggested that one factor in the spread of misinformation is social media bots – accounts that operate on their own, without human involvement, to post and interact with others on social media sites.
This topic has drawn the attention of much of the public: About two-thirds of Americans (66%) have heard about social media bots, though far fewer (16%) have heard a lot about these accounts. Among those aware of the phenomenon, a large majority are concerned that bot accounts are being used maliciously, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted July 30-Aug. 12, 2018, among 4,581 U.S. adults who are members of Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel (the Center has previously studied bots on Twitter and the news sites to which they link). Eight-in-ten of those who have heard of bots say that these accounts are mostly used for bad purposes, while just 17% say they are mostly used for good purposes.
To further understand some of the nuances of the public’s views of social media bots, the remainder of this study explores attitudes among those Americans who have heard about them (about a third – 34% – have not heard anything about them).
While many Americans are aware of the existence of social media bots, fewer are confident they can identify them. About half of those who have heard about bots (47%) are very or somewhat confident they can recognize these accounts on social media, with just 7% saying they are very confident. In contrast, 84% of Americans expressed confidence in their ability to recognize made-up news in an earlier study.
When it comes to the news environment specifically, many find social media bots’ presence pervasive and concerning. About eight-in-ten of those who have heard of bots (81%) think that at least a fair amount of the news people get from social media comes from these accounts, including 17% who think a great deal comes from bots. And about two-thirds (66%) think that social media bots have a mostly negative effect on how well-informed Americans are about current events, while far fewer (11%) believe they have a mostly positive effect.
While the public’s overall impression of social media bots is negative, they have more nuanced views about specific uses of these accounts – with some uses receiving overwhelming support or opposition. For example, 78% of those who have heard about bots support the government using them to post emergency updates, the most popular function of the nine asked about in the survey. In contrast, these Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to the use of bots to post made-up news or false information (92%). They are also largely opposed to bots being used for political purposes and are more split when considering how companies and news organizations often use bots.
Technology experts and scholars have never been at a loss for concerns about the current and future impact of the internet.
Over the years of canvassings by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, many experts have been anxious about the way people’s online activities can undermine truth, foment distrust, jeopardize individuals’ well-being when it comes to physical and emotional health, enable trolls to weaken democracy and community, compromise human agency as algorithms become embedded in more activities, kill privacy, make institutions less secure, open up larger social divisions as digital divides widen, and wipe out untold numbers of decent-paying jobs.
An early-2018 expert canvassing of technology experts, scholars and health specialists on the future of digital life and well-being contained references to some of those concerns. The experts who participated in that research project were also asked to share anecdotes about their own personal experiences with digital life. This report shares those observations.
Specifically, the participants in the nonscientific canvassing were asked:
Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital life has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about life for self, family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyperconnected life changes people’s well-being compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.
Many of these experts wrote about a number of powerful ways digital life makes things better. Some themes:
THE POSITIVES OF DIGITAL LIFE
Many argued that the internet has provided one of the greatest boons to individuals: the ability to reach out and connect directly with friends, family, colleagues, knowledge, education, entertainment and more anywhere globally at any time in a nearly free and frictionless manner.
Invent, reinvent, innovate
Digital tools enable people to invent or reinvent their lives and careers. They can also innovate through wide networking with people and information that allows them to develop businesses, find the perfect job, and meet soulmates, colleagues, new friends and fellow interest-sharers.
THE NEGATIVES OF DIGITAL LIFE
Low-friction instant access to nearly everything, anytime, anywhere is causing stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and loss of patience. Some experts noted that they witness people missing out on or diminishing important face-to-face social interactions and experiences. Some also noted that work demands and entertainment lures tug away at users 24/7/365 and that there is a loss of attention to “real life.”
The business model of internet platforms is mostly built on an attention economy that rewards addictive products that heighten users’ emotions and perpetuate polarization. In addition, there are concerns among experts about issues of security, surveillance and privacy.
The remainder of this report draws from elaboration of these ideas by respondents who shared anecdotes and observations. It is broken into three chapters: 1) anecdotes and comments about the positives of digital life; 2) anecdotes and comments about potentially harmful aspects of that life; and 3) responses in which people’s statements or anecdotes were fairly evenly split with both pros and cons of digital life. Some responses are lightly edited for style.