May 24, 2022 - Technology

Free speech debate targets big media

Illustration of opposing hands pointing at two different speech bubbles.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

America's free speech frustration has pivoted from tech companies to media publishers, according to this year's Axios Harris Poll 100.

Why it matters: It's a sign of growing hostility toward publishers, with little recourse for people who think they don't do enough to guard against bias or misinformation.

  • The lines between publishers, like The Washington Post, and platforms like Twitter where their stories might appear are becoming increasingly blurred — making it harder to be sure exactly who the public is blaming when they don't like the content.
  • Tech firms are protected by internet laws that shield them from liability for what users post. But there's bipartisan momentum around changing those rules.
  • The Axios Harris Poll 100 is an annual survey to gauge the reputations of the most visible brands in the country.

Details: A majority of Americans (57%) say publishers are responsible for content that goes against their personal values, not platforms.

  • Only 43% said platforms were more responsible.
  • While most Americans (58%) say technology companies are promoting free speech rather than hurting it, a major political divide persists.
  • An overwhelming majority of Democrats (72%) say tech companies promote free speech vs. only (41%) of Republicans.

Yes, but: The gap between the two parties in terms of trust in mass media reached an all-time high during the Trump administration, which could impact how they approach the free speech debate.

  • When asked who is responsible when content is published on a media platform that goes against their personal values, Democrats are evenly split (49% platform vs. 51% publisher), compared to Republicans (59% publisher vs 41% platform).

Between the lines: In the wake of the 2020 election, skepticism of mainstream media has intensified on the right, while frustration with coverage from Fox News has intensified on the left.

  • Last year, Democratic lawmakers held a hearing about the role of cable and broadcast companies in disseminating disinformation and extremist content.
  • A Pew Research Center poll from July found that Republicans are less likely to trust a media source if it's viewed as "mainstream."

The big picture: Tech firms are still some of the worst-performing companies in the Axios Harris 100 poll.

  • Meta/Facebook ranked 97th of 100 brands on the poll, followed by Twitter, which ranked 98th. TikTok ranked 94th.

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