Americans’ attitudes on internet regulations go beyond party lines – Knight Foundation
Learning and Impact

Americans’ attitudes on internet regulations go beyond party lines

New Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of 10,000 Americans finds that attitudes are shaped by a spectrum of issues when considering tech platforms’ and the government’s role—if any—in addressing key policy questions

WASHINGTON –  The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup released a new report today that finds Americans attitudes go beyond partisanship when it comes to internet regulation and free expression online, issues at the core of today’s debates on the future of democracy, elections and the pandemic.  The research finds that many Americans’ views are shaped not only by party but by their attitudes about free speech and the state of U.S. democracy, their level of civic engagement, and their general use of and opinions about the internet.

Based on nearly a year of research, including a survey of 10,000 adults in the U.S. and a series of in-depth focus groups, the report, “Media and Democracy: Unpacking America’s Complex Views on the Digital Public Square,” finds that Americans fall into six groups, reflecting differing and complex attitudes about how people view the internet, social media and its impact on civic life.

Half of Americans don’t align with the partisan extremes, and instead occupy a diverse, middle ground with nuanced views. The six groups, listed by size, are:

  • Reformers (30%): These highly engaged internet users and news consumers are politically active and tilt heavily Democratic. They tend to favor much more intervention by the government and social media companies to address social harms online.
  • Individualists (19%): Avid consumers of right-leaning news, this politically engaged group is also the most homogenous. They show a strong affinity for the Republican Party, favor individual responsibility and as little intervention by the government or social media companies as possible.
  • Concerned Spectators (19%): Somewhat older and less politically active online, this group is worried about the spread of misinformation and other harmful content, but is split on who should be responsible for moderating content.
  • Unfazed Digital Natives (19%): These younger, digital natives are less concerned about the potential harms of content online than most others and favor a hands-off approach by the government. Nevertheless, they support some degree of content moderation by social media companies.
  • Traditionalists (9%): While recognizing the potential for harm, this segment is also wary of the government being the arbiter of free expression online. The group is mixed politically and tends to take a laissez-faire approach, and assigns responsibility to individuals and social media companies.
  • Unplugged and Ambivalent (4%): The smallest among the segments, this group tends to be offline, disconnected from news and mixed in terms of partisan attachments. This group has conflicted and contradictory views on who should be responsible for harmful content online.

In addition to Americans’ views on Internet regulation, the Gallup/Knight report examines Americans’ opinions on social media, how they use it, and how it affects their political engagement and expression. On those topics, the research found the following: 

  • Deep Concerns:  Among Americans, 71% say the internet does more to divide us than bring us together, and 62% say that elected officials pay too little attention to the problem. 
  • Harmful Content: Most Americans (90%) believe  social media makes it easier for harmful and extreme viewpoints to spread. Most say they distrust (76%)  what they see on social media. Black Americans are the most likely to be concerned about hate speech and abusive content (70%).
  • Social Media Use: Americans use social media sites more than any other type of website. Those who say a social media site is one of their most used tend to go to these platforms for entertainment (80%) and to connect with others (70%), more  than for news (62%).
  • Online vs. Offline: Americans rarely engage in politics online, and 32% say debates on social media make them less likely to use social media. But large numbers say these debates make them more likely to take offline action like voting (48%) or more closely following the news (39%).

“While the debate over internet regulation has tended to the extremes, our research shows that half of Americans have more nuanced views that aren’t easily predicted by their partisan leanings,” said John Sands, Knight’s Senior Director of Media and Democracy. “One thing is clear: any policy interventions in the digital public square will touch all Americans, regardless of political party. Democracy demands policy approaches that reflect the diversity of perspectives.”

“Whether you use the Internet to stay close with your community, use it to follow political debates that encourage political actions, or are part of the 90% of Americans who believe social media makes it easier to make threats, spread extreme viewpoints and misinformation, this issue touches all Americans,” said Shannon McGregor, a senior researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, and an academic advisor on this research. “This report asks Americans what type of Internet they’d like to see, and policy makers should listen.”

For interviews with John Sands or others at Knight or Gallup about this report, please contact Adam Peck from West End Strategy at [email protected] or (202) 531-6408.


About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

As social investors, Knight Foundation supports democracy in America by funding free expression and journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and in the success of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once published newspapers. Learn more at and follow @knightfdn on social media.

About Gallup

Gallup delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems. Combining more than 80 years of experience with its global reach, Gallup knows more about the attitudes and behaviors of employees, customers, students and citizens than any other organization in the world. For more information, visit