30 November 2021
Social media platforms have become a ubiquitous method of communication and conversation in Australia and globally. How to address issues of concern with social media, while supporting the positive uses of social media platforms, is likely to be an issue of significant public and political debate in coming years. There will be major questions about trade-offs, the role of the state in regulating private businesses, policing individual speech, and whether and how to regulate social media platforms.
The Susan McKinnon Foundation funded a newDemocracy Foundation pilot project to explore the potential for opinion polling to improve the quality of public policy decision making in Australia (the Pilot). JWS Research was commissioned to undertake one of three pilot research projects, in this case, to understand how the Australian public is using and thinking about social media. This was not an exhaustive policy test, but instead an exploratory piece of research to assist in policy making and implementation.
The research examined:
- What aspects of social media people find most valuable, and the aspects that are most troubling.
- How people use social media, including the extent to which it is a trusted source of information.
- The role of social media as a news source and views of mis- and dis-information.
- Which social media issues are matters of concern to the public and whether these issues are likely to change how people use social media.
- Understanding and perceptions of algorithms.
- To what extent people are aware of the data social media companies collect and what it is used for.
- Views about whose responsibility it is to regulate social media, and whether social media platforms should have a role in policing content and users on their platforms.
The research methodology involved:
- In-depth interviews with five experts to inform the scope and focus of the research program.
- Six exploratory group discussions conducted online with Australians who use social media for various purposes including news, socialising and entertainment.
- Online survey of 2,500 Australians aged 16+.
- Four deep dive online group discussions, focusing on the issues of greatest importance as identified in the quantitative survey and conducted with active social media users, parents and those who post and share online.
Key insights arising from the research included:
- 91% of Australians aged 16+ use social media. On average, social media users rate the positives of their social media experience as only slightly outweighing the negatives, with key concerns being in relation to mis- and dis-information, safety issues, user data and algorithms.
- 74% of Australians support more Federal Government regulation. While not a priority concern relative to key national issues such as the economy, healthcare and the environment, the issue of social media impacts and regulation is on the public’s radar, particularly among younger age groups. Most Australians are concerned about the lack of regulation by social media companies.
- Social media is a key source of news and information for many Australians and false or misleading information (‘fake news’) is the leading community concern about social media. The issue is seen as requiring the most urgent attention.
- The key consideration for Australians in deciding how to formally address mis- and dis-information on social media is how to do so without infringing on users’ freedom of speech or going too far down the path of social media platforms ‘censoring’ content.
- Social media companies are neither expected nor trusted to lead the push for better standards. In lieu of this, responsibility largely rests with the Federal Government to take the lead on driving reform and ensuring the same standards of behaviour apply for digital as physical spaces.
- Australians see it as a community responsibility to protect vulnerable users from harm on social media. In principle, they are prepared to accept some trade off in personal privacy and other rights to achieve a safer social media space for all users.
Further details, findings and insights were shared with relevant stakeholders, including Members of Parliament, government agencies and other interest groups at the time. The data set arising from the research is available for download. Stakeholders also engaged in a series of feedback and design interviews relating to program design and development for the purposes of the Pilot.
Further details, findings and insights are set out in a research report published on 31 January 2022.