Covid-19 and Changing Attitudes: Technology and Big Tech

Covid-19

Covid-19 and Changing Attitudes: Technology and Big Tech

Report
Posted on: 2nd July 2020
By Multiple Authors
Rosie Beacon
Policy Analyst
Max Beverton-Palmer
Head of Tech and Society
Andrew Bennett
Policy Analyst, Technology and Public Policy

    Summary

    Summary

    The Covid-19 pandemic sent countries around the world into crisis mode, with many people having to cope with severe social isolation and physical-distancing measures. It forced citizens, organisations and governments to adapt in order to carry on despite the enormous health, economic and social disruption, much of which is still continuing.

    In April we published “Digital Policy for a Lockdown”, setting out the challenges and opportunities of technology for policymakers with much social and economic activity being forced online. This research report builds on that work and looks at perceptions of technology and Big Tech companies in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. It seeks to understand how people perceive technology companies in the context of global institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and what role people think Big Tech has to play in tackling the problems created by the pandemic.

    This research is based on statistically representative surveys conducted in early June in Britain, the US, France and Germany. We looked particularly at perceptions of the predominantly consumer-facing GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and also included Twitter to reflect its important role in social media, news and online information.

    The survey also covered geopolitical opinions and views of the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, which are covered in two separate reports.

    The main headlines are:

    1. Across Britain, the US, Germany and France, views on whether Big Tech companies are a force for good or bad in the world are mixed, though in all countries surveyed the most popular answer people gave was that they are neither a force for good nor for bad in the world.
    2. Google is consistently viewed more as a force for good than the other companies, and social media companies Twitter and Facebook are consistently viewed more negatively than the other companies. 
    3. In Britain, the US and Germany more people see Google, Amazon and Apple as a force for good than see them as a force for bad, whereas more people see Facebook and Twitter as a force for bad than see them as a force for good. In France, only Google is seen as more of a force for good than it is seen as a force for bad (not withstanding that a plurality of people for each company in each country surveyed see the companies as neither a force for good or bad).
    4. Across all four countries, people’s perceptions and expectations of the role that Big Tech companies have played or should play, respectively, are closely aligned: People do not see them playing a significant role in tackling the pandemic, nor do they believe that they should. This is in particular contrast to the significant role people expect the World Health Organisation and global pharmaceutical companies to play.
    5. In general, people in all four countries do not expect to work from home more often after the pandemic is over, though roughly a third do in all the countries we surveyed.
    6. All four countries report an increase in shopping online for household goods and clothes, and in particular an increase in online video calls to keep in touch with friends and family. This is especially pronounced in Britain and the US, but less so in France and, in particular, Germany.

     

    Perceptions of Global Technology Companies as a Force for Good or Bad in the World

    Perceptions of Global Technology Companies as a Force for Good or Bad in the World

    Big Tech companies are generally perceived to be neither a force for good nor for bad in the world, though Google is consistently viewed most positively and social media companies Twitter and Facebook are consistently viewed most negatively.

    We looked at whether people perceive technology companies as a force for good or for bad in the world. It’s notable that, despite the significant technological innovation these companies have brought, there was no country where any tech company was seen by a majority of the population as a force for good in the world. This might be because responses may have been relative to other organisations listed in the survey, or it may reflect people’s mixed feelings about the role these companies have in the world.

    Figure 1 – Perceptions in Britain of Big Tech companies

    Please say whether you think each of the following is generally a force for good or a force for bad in the world, neither, or "don't know"? ("Don't know" answers are excluded from the charts.)

    Figure 2 – Perceptions in the US of Big Tech companies

    Figure 3 – Perceptions in Germany of Big Tech companies

    Figure 4 – Perceptions in France of Big Tech companies

    Social media companies are viewed less positively in terms or their role in the world compared to other Big Tech companies. Twitter and Facebook were more likely to be viewed as a “force for bad” than Amazon, Google or Apple across Britain, the US, Germany and France. In contrast, in the countries we surveyed, Google was consistently viewed the most favourably, with more than a third of people in each country seeing it as generally a force for good in the world.

    Facebook is seen as the tech company that’s most likely to be considered a “force for bad in the world” in the countries we surveyed. It’s viewed the least positively in France, with 38% of people saying it’s a force for bad in the world.

    People in the countries we surveyed were less certain about whether tech companies were a force for good or bad compared to their opinions on the US and Chinese governments, and the UN and the WHO. For example, in Britain, more than 40% of people responded for each of the tech companies that they were neither a force for good nor bad in the world.

    Age also has an important effect of the perception of tech companies. Older people are more likely to see tech companies as neither a force for good nor bad than younger people, who tend to have stronger opinions, both positive or negative.

    It might be expected that younger people would have a generally more positive view of tech companies, but this is dependent on the tech company:

    • Around half of 18-24s saw Google as a force for good in Britain (51%) and in the US (48%) compared with 33% of over-65s in both Britain and US.

    Figure 5 – Perceptions of Amazon as either a force for good, bad or neither in the world by age

    grid of survey results on Amazon broken down by country and age group
    Please say whether you think each of the following is generally a force for good or a force for bad in the world, or neither?

    Perceptions of the Role of Tech Companies During the Pandemic

    Perceptions of the Role of Tech Companies During the Pandemic

    Expectations of Technology Companies

    Across all four countries, people’s perceptions and expectations of the role that Big Tech companies have played or should play, respectively, are broadly aligned: A significant majority of people do not think tech companies should play a large role in tackling the pandemic, and a small number believe they should be doing more than they have so far.

    Technology companies might be considered to have played a significant role during the Covid-19 response, from promoting the free-flow of information across borders and enabling scientific communities to connect quickly, to providing goods and services that have continued while other parts of retail have been shut down.

    Despite this, our research shows that confidence in the ability of tech companies to provide solutions to the pandemic is low and in general people in the four countries we surveyed do not have high expectations for these tech companies around the coronavirus pandemic. However, this may reflect the fact that, while these companies can help to manage the disruption, they are not primarily responsible for tackling the disease itself compared with other actors such as the WHO or global pharmaceutical companies.

    Across all four countries, 6 in 10 people do not think that Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter or Apple have had a large role to play in helping to provide pandemic solutions. Slightly more people expect these companies to play a greater role than they have so far (e.g. 20% in the US believe Apple "has played" a moderate/large role, with 28% believing that it "should play" a moderate/large role), but a significant majority in all four countries believe the companies should have "no/small" role in the Covid-19 response.

    Figure 6 – Perceptions in Britain of how big a role tech companies have played in tackling the coronavirus pandemic

    So far, how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following has played in helping to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in Britain?

    Figure 7 – Views in Britain on how big a role tech companies should play in finding solutions to the coronavirus pandemic

    And how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following SHOULD play in helping to find solutions to the coronavirus pandemic in Britain?

    In contrast, there is a gap between expectations and perceptions of the role that the World Health Organisation and global pharmaceutical companies should play: Across all four countries, people believe these organisations have a very large role in tackling the pandemic, but perceptions about the role they have actually played fall short of these expectations.

    This contrasts with organisations such as the World Health Organisation and global pharmaceutical companies, where there is a gap across all four countries between expectations of the role these organisations should play and the role they are perceived to have actually played. For example, 69% of people in France believe the WHO has played a moderate/large role in tackling the pandemic, but 82% believe they should. This is a consistent pattern for all countries.

    Figure 8 – Geographic comparison of perceptions and expectations of role played by the World Health Organisation in tackling the coronavirus pandemic

    So far, how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following has played in helping to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in (specific country)?
    And how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following SHOULD play in helping to find solutions to the coronavirus pandemic in (specific country)?

    This suggests that the low expectations of tech may not be to do with distrust of large private companies completely, but instead reflect the perception that these large private companies have little relevance to the pandemic response. Global pharmaceutical companies seem more directly relevant to fighting a global pandemic than technology companies do.

    Figure 9 – Geographic comparison of perceptions and expectations of role played by global pharmaceutical companies in tackling the coronavirus pandemic

    So far, how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following has played in helping to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in (specific country)?
    And how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following SHOULD play in helping to find solutions to the coronavirus pandemic in (specific country)?

    Views in the US about the role of Big Tech in helping to tackle the pandemic are more politically polarised than in the other survey countries.

    For example, in Britain, 57% of Brexit Remain voters and 58% of Leave voters think Apple should have "no or small role" in the coronavirus response, with similarly comparable views held for other tech companies. In the US, however, Trump voters are significantly more likely to believe tech companies should not be involved in tackling the pandemic.

    Figure 10 – US partisan responses for "should have small or no role" in fighting the pandemic

    And how much of a role, if any, do you think each of the following SHOULD play in helping to find solutions to the coronavirus pandemic in the US?

    How Are People Using Technology During the Pandemic?

    How Are People Using Technology During the Pandemic?

    Lifestyle Changes

    Technology has been crucial in enabling individuals to adapt to new home-working situations during the coronavirus pandemic, but it is unclear whether this will permanently change the nature of work.

    Figure 11 – Expectations on post-pandemic home-working by country

    Thinking about a possible time in the future, when the coronavirus pandemic is over... Generally speaking, do you think you will do more or less of the following, or will there be no real change either way, compared with how you worked before the coronavirus pandemic?

    Around half of people in all four countries anticipate no change to their working environment following the pandemic, though a significant proportion expect to work from home more often.

    As Covid-19 lockdowns have shut down many high streets and other offline activities, we might expect to see a marked uptick in online activity. However, while this has proven true of Britain and the US, Germany and France have seen a much lower shift. The exception is online video calls to stay in touch with friends and family, where all countries have seen an increase. For the UK, this finding is corroborated by Ofcom’s Online Nations report, which details how “the proportion of people making video calls has also doubled during lockdown, with more than seven in 10 doing so at least weekly”.  Again, people in Germany reported a smaller shift online.

    Figure 12 – Changes in online behaviours (online shopping for household goods, online shopping for shoes and clothes and online video calls) across the four countries surveyed

    Grid of bar charts for each country in 3 different categories
    Generally speaking, compared with before the coronavirus pandemic started, are you doing more or less of the following, or has there been no real change from before?

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, in Britain and the US the greater shift to shopping online has occurred among older groups, with over-65s in Britain generally less frequent users of the internet than younger generations, according to the Office of National Statistics. All generations report a significant shift online, however. Again, less seems to have shifted online in Germany and France.

    Figure 13 – Age distribution of people who said they do more ‘"shopping online to buy household goods, such as food, toiletries, cleaning materials, pet food, etc"

    Generally speaking, compared with before the coronavirus pandemic started, are you doing more or less of the following, or has there been no real change from before? Data taken just from the "Shopping online to buy household goods, such as food, toiletries, cleaning materials, pet food etc"

    EDITOR’S NOTE: The source of this data is polling conducted by YouGov of a sample of 8,494 adults in GB, the US, Germany and France. The sample was made up of 2,033 adults in GB between 4 and 15 June 2020; 2,418 adults in the US between 8 and 11 June 2020; 2,020 adults in Germany between 9 and 12 June 2020 and 2,023 adults in France between 9 and 11 June 2020.

    Full Survey Results
    The data is available here in XLSX format

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