The politics of digital literacy and information control: an important survey

What is the role of authority in digital literacy?  How much trust do we place in individual judgement?

I’ve been writing about this particular politics of digital (and information, and media) literacy for a while.  Today I came across a new survey on this topic.  It has important findings for the topic, with some surprises, and I’d like to dig into them here.

The Pew Research Center asked Americans about when they’d like authorities to control information.  Specifically, they inquired about when we’d prefer to see governments and technology companies “take steps to restrict false info online”, versus believing that “[f]reedom of info should be protected, even if it means false info can be published”.

The general results are fascinating.  A little more than one third wants the federal government to intervene against “false info online”, while just more than one half opposes this.  But when it comes to tech companies, those proportions flip almost exactly, and a majority of Americans prefer having Facebook et al “take steps”:

Pew sliced up the responses in some useful ways.

Party politics, for example.  For all we supposedly living in a bitterly divided age, Republicans and Democrats had very similar attitudes towards government action against false info, and differed somewhat on businesses:

Demographics are fascinating, and also fly against common wisdom.  For all the fears of Millennials being Tumblr-crazed censors who hate democracy, it’s older folks who are more likely to support censorship:

About half or more of adults in each age group studied prefer the freedom to publish and access information online over U.S. government intervention that might restrict such freedoms.

This position is strongest among younger Americans. At least six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 (65%) and 30 to 49 (62%) prefer no government restrictions on information flow compared with 53% of those 50 to 64 and 48% of those 65 and older.

Education: the more education a respondent had, the more likely they were to resist government and tech firm information control.

Gender: women were distinctly more supportive than men of government and technology company steps to control bad information.  Yet the overall pattern of preferring business censorship holds across both: “Overall, both men and women are more likely to support the actions of technology companies than the government to restrict online publishing and information.”

Some quick thoughts (while I’m working at an unconference, traveling, and ill):

  1. Those tending to support censorship or information control tend to be older and less educated.  They also tend to be Trump voters.
  2. Overall we are more comfortable with business than government controlling/deleting/adding/etc. information.  Is this due to the huge backlash against Silicon Valley this year?  Or is it a sign of neoliberalism’s deep normalization in American society?
  3. There’s a history of American politicians threatening industries with censorship, followed by those industries deciding to regulate themselves.  This happened with movies, comics, music, and computer games.  Perhaps we’re seeing that process under way with the digital world, at least for social media and perhaps search.
  4. I would love to see the results broken down by other dimensions, including geography (states, regions, rural versus urban) and technology usage.

What do you think?

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