May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 10: Social Networking, Science and Civil Liberties

Amid the growing popularity of social networking web sites, the public expresses mixed opinions about people sharing personal information online. About as many say it is a bad thing (44%) that the internet enables people to share pictures and other personal things about themselves with others as see this as a good thing (43%).

As might be expected, there are sizable age differences in opinions about the online sharing of personal information: 62% of those younger than 30 see this as a good thing – but this is the only age category in which a majority expresses a positive view. By greater than three-to-one (66% to 19%), those 65 and older express a negative opinion of the sharing of pictures and other information online.

Men have a more positive view of the online sharing of personal information than do women (49% vs. 37%). And while a majority of college graduates (57%) see online exchanges of personal information as a good thing, only about a third of those with no more than a high school education (34%) agree.

People who go online – 79% of the public – are more positive about the online sharing of personal information than are those who do not go online (50% online vs. 17% not online). The demographic patterns of opinion among online users are similar to those of people who do not go online. For instance, among the roughly half (46%) of those 65 and older who go online, 28% say the sharing of online personal information is a good thing, the lowest percentage of any age group.

Those who engage in online social networking through sites like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter are far more likely than those who do not use these sites to say that sharing pictures and personal information online is a good thing. Two-thirds (67%) of social networking web site users view online sharing as a good thing, compared with only 23% of those who do not use these sites.

Social Networking More Popular

Growing numbers of Americans are signing onto web sites like MySpace, Facebook or Twitter for social networking opportunities with friends and family or to connect with others who share their interests. A third of Americans (33%) say they use an online social networking site, up from 28% last October and 22% in December 2007.

Social networking sites continue to be most popular with those younger than 30, but nearly all of the recent growth in social networking has come among older people. Currently, 70% of those younger than 30 say they use a social networking site; that is virtually unchanged from December 2007 (67%). Meanwhile, the proportion of those in their 30s has approximately doubled since then (from 21% in December 2007 to 43%). Among those in their 40s, 29% now say they use a social networking site, up from just 11% in December 2007.

The proportion of college graduates who say they use social networking sites has more than doubled since December 2007 from (20% to 42%). The share of those with no more than a high school education who use these sites has grown more modestly, from 16% to 24%.

Checking In Daily, Or More Often

For many who engage in social networking online, visiting one or more of these sites is part of a daily routine. Nearly one-in-five of those who use social networking sites (19%) say they visit these sites several times a day, while another 24% say they visit about once a day; 39% say they use social networking sites every few days or once a week, while 18% visit less often.

While there continues to be a sizable age divide in the overall use of social networking sites, there are more modest differences in the frequency with which younger and older social networkers access these sites. Nearly a quarter of social networkers who are younger than 30 (23%) say they use these sites several times a day, while another 25% use them about once a day. Social networkers in their 30s check in with only somewhat less frequency; 15% use sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter several times a day, while 26% check about once a day. The figures are similar for social networkers 40 and older.

Views of Science and Technology

Public opinion about the impact of science and technology on both society and peoples’ own lives remain overwhelmingly positive. Most Americans do not worry about science having a harmful effect on society, nor are they concerned that technological advances over-complicate their lives.

Roughly one-in-three Americans (34%) agree that they are “worried that science is going too far and is hurting society rather than helping it,” while a solid majority (61%) disagree with this view of science. These figures are largely unchanged from 2007. Earlier in the decade, a somewhat higher percentage expressed concern about the impact of science on society (42% in 2002 and 2003).

Education is a major factor in concerns about science: 45% of those with no more than a high school education say they worry about science going too far, as do about a third (32%) of those with some college; just 17% of college graduates agree. There also are substantial racial differences in these views. Nearly half of African Americans (47%) say they worry that science is going too far and hurting society, similar to Hispanics (44%), and much higher than whites (29%).

There are only modest partisan differences in concerns about science. About four-in-ten Republicans (39%) say they are concerned that science is going too far and is hurting society rather than helping it; that is up substantially from 2007 (28%) but is about the share of Republicans expressing this opinion in 2003 (37%). About a third of Democrats (34%) and 30% of independents say they are worried that science is going too far and is hurting society, which is little changed from 2007.

About three-in-ten Americans (29%) agree with the statement: “Technology is making life too complicated for me” while 69% disagree. These opinions have been fairly stable since the question was first asked in 2002. Older Americans, particularly those 65 and older, express concerns about technology. Half (50%) of those 65 and older – including 59% of women in this age group – say technology is making life too complicated. Far fewer people in younger age groups express this view.

Civil Liberties and Terrorism

Public attitudes about civil liberties have remained fairly constant when it comes to views about permitting free speech for terrorist sympathizers, and allowing warrantless searches of homes of those who may be sympathetic to terrorists.

However, there has been a substantial change in opinions about whether the average person will have to give up some civil liberties in order to curb terrorism in the United States. Currently, just 27% say it will be necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties, while 65% say this will not be necessary. This is the lowest percentage saying it will be necessary for average citizens to give up some liberties to fight terrorism in the past decade.

Two years ago, 40% said it would be necessary to sacrifice some civil liberties to curb terrorism. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, majorities expressed this view (55% in mid-September 2001, and January 2002).

Fewer Republicans, in particular, believe it will be necessary for the average citizen to give up civil liberties to curb terrorism. Roughly half (51%) of Republicans expressed this view in January 2007; only about a third (34%) do so today. There have been smaller declines in the proportions of Democrats and independents (10 points each) who believe it is necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to curb terrorism.

Rights for Terrorist Sympathizers?

Just a third of Americans (33%) agree that “the police should be allowed to search the houses of people who might be sympathetic to terrorists without a court order”; 64% disagree with this statement. Opinions about this issue have changed little since the question was first asked in 2003.

There are substantial educational differences in views about whether the police should be allowed to search the houses of possible terrorist sympathizers without a court order. More than four-in-ten (43%) of those with no more than a high school education say such searches should be permitted, compared with just 19% of college graduates.

The political differences over this issue are more modest: 42% of Republicans, 34% of Democrats and 30% of independents believe the police should be allowed to search the houses of those who might be sympathetic to terrorists without a court order. In addition, there are only modest age differences in these opinions.

The public is more evenly divided over denying freedom of speech to groups that are sympathetic to terrorists. Nearly half (49%) agree that “freedom of speech should not extend to groups that are sympathetic to terrorists”; 45% disagree. As with opinions about police searches of those who might be sympathetic to terrorists, views about denying free speech for groups that sympathize with terrorists have remained fairly stable since 2003.

More women (55%) than men (44%) believe that freedom of speech should not extend to groups that are sympathetic to terrorists. And while majorities of those with no more than a high school education (58%) and some college (52%) favor denying freedom of speech to terrorist sympathizers, just a third of college graduates (33%) agree. But the political differences on this issue are slight, with comparable percentages of Republicans (52%), Democrats (48%) and independents (51%) saying that free speech should not extend to groups that are sympathetic to terrorists.