The TBI Globalism Study: Should Social Media Companies Be Regulated?

The TBI Globalism Study: Should Social Media Companies Be Regulated?

Report
Posted on: 24th November 2020
Max Beverton-Palmer
Head of the Internet Policy Unit

2020 has seen some big debates about the regulation of technology companies come to a head in the US and in Europe. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic, the spectre of economic collapse and lockdowns of whole nations have forced us all to rethink our relationship with the state. With this backdrop, our polling looks at people’s perceptions of how key industries, including social media, are regulated and then compares that with how people think those industries should be regulated. 

The polling, which is part of the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, covers 24 countries across the world and was conducted as part of a collaboration between researchers at the Tony Blair Institute, YouGov and the University of Cambridge. 

The regulatory frameworks vary significantly between different industries and countries, but this new evidence gives a sense of how interventionist people are in terms of the relationship between the state and industry. 

It may be that the traditional models of state intervention and regulation need a rethink for the internet-era, particularly for organisations that provide social-media and online-search services that play a crucial role in the public sphere. But it is important to note that people have a more nuanced understanding of state intervention in many industries. Policymakers would be wise to reach for smarter regulatory approaches that work in tandem with technology companies, rather than immediately reaching for the most interventionist approaches, particularly where there are trade-offs with freedom of expression, for example. 

Our research shows:

  1. People in Britain and the US had a greater preference for the regulation of social media when compared to people in countries in the EU. 
  2. More than half of people in Britain think social-media companies should have some kind of specific regulation (either light or heavy regulation), the highest in all of the markets surveyed.
  3. In the US, 21 per cent of people said social media should be subject to the most interventionist approaches, but again a plurality of people (27 per cent) said social-media platforms should be run by private companies with light government regulation. 
  4. Looking across a wide range of industries, people in Britain have a more interventionist preference than people in the US, France and Germany.
  5. There is no significant polarisation of opinion on regulation and state intervention by political affiliation in the UK.
  6. There is no great preference for heavy regulation of social media and online search, with no more than 22 per cent of people in any market expressing a desire for heavy regulation of social media and no more than 23 per cent on online search. 
  7. The countries expressing the most liberal approach to social media were Japan, South Africa and Nigeria, where 37 per cent, 36 per cent and 32 per cent of people respectively said social media should be run by private companies, but with no specific government regulation. 
  8. The Nordic countries we surveyed (Sweden and Denmark) were the least sure of what regulation should apply to social media, with 31 per cent of people in Sweden and 35 per cent of people in Denmark saying they didn’t know what form of state intervention should apply. 
     

Figure 1 – Perceptions of the regulatory model that should apply to social-media companies

And which, if any, of the following best describes what you think the relationship of the government in [country name] should be with the following type of industry in [country name]? (Please select one option on each column) Excluding those who said None of these, Don’t know and No regulation

Figure 2 – Support for no specific government regulation applying to social media companies

And which, if any, of the following best describes what you think the relationship of the government in [country name] should be with the following type of industry in [country name]? (Run by private companies, with no specific regulation)

General Views on State Intervention and Regulation

Our research asked people where they thought the balance of state intervention should be for key industries. As expected, results vary by industry and by country surveyed. The following charts set out where people thought state intervention was at the moment and contrasts it with where people perceive it should be in the future. We’ve selected three markets in the visualisations below. 

Great Britain

In Britain there is a small preference for greater government intervention in social media, online search, the railways and energy companies. 

Some commentators have argued that this period has brought about a fundamental shift in the relationship with the state. Our polling shows that in Britain there is a small swing towards more interventionist approaches in most industries. For example, 36 per cent of people think energy companies are currently either entirely government-run, run by a mix of government and private companies, or subject to heavy government regulation, with 51 per cent thinking energy companies should be subject to this more interventionist approach. 
 

Figure 3 – Comparison of views in Britain on what the state intervention in industries is today vs. what state intervention should be

Legend displaying range of regulatory interventions
Perceptions in Britain of regulation across social media, newspapers, railways, airlines, energy and consumer goods

And which, if any, of the following best describes what you think the relationship of the government in [country name] should be with the following type of industry in [country name]? (Please select one option on each column)

The United States

Figure 4 – Views in the US on what the current state intervention in industries looks like compared with views on what state intervention should be

Legend displaying range of regulatory interventions
Perceptions in the USA of regulation across social media, newspapers, railways, airlines, energy and consumer goods

And which, if any, of the following best describes what you think the relationship of the government in [country name] should be with the following type of industry in [country name]? (Please select one option on each column)


France

Figure 5 – Views in France on what the current state intervention in industries looks like compared with views on what state intervention should be

Legend displaying range of regulatory interventions
Perceptions in France of regulation across social media, newspapers, railways, airlines, energy and consumer goods

And which, if any, of the following best describes what you think the relationship of the government in [country name] should be with the following type of industry in [country name]? (Please select one option on each column)

Editor's Note: Some data in charts and text may vary slightly due to rounding. Participants for the survey were selected from an online panel, which should be taken into account in responses to questions about online activities, particularly in countries with low levels of internet access. More information about the research and results can be found here: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/yougov-cambridge/globalism-project
 

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