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Americans don't trust tech companies or the government to prevent foreign manipulation of online platforms to influence elections, according to an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll. The result underscores the complexity of the issue that brings top lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify on Capitol Hill this week.

Expand chart
Data: SurveyMonkey poll conducted from Oct. 23 to Oct. 26. Poll data. Poll methodology; Chart: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: Congressional investigators are preparing to hammer tech execs on how Russian-bought political ads and content made its way onto their platforms to stoke chaos leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Facebook and Twitter have spent the past few weeks scrambling to put in place new safeguards to prevent this sort of activity — all part of public relations strategies on both sides to show they are serious about cracking down on foreign interference in U.S. politics.

The public's lack of trust in both the companies and the government on this front is easy to explain:

  • For nearly a decade, the Federal Elections Commission has declined to require the types of disclosures for paid political advertising on online platforms that you see on political ads on TV, radio and print. The lack of formal rules meant that opaqueness became the industry standard.
  • Meanwhile, tech companies came up with their own guidelines to walk the fine line between reasonable ad disclosure and growing their lucrative political advertising business during campaign seasons. While they've broken no rules, their admissions that Russian groups and other malicious actors targeted users without their knowledge gives congressional investigators an easy opening to slap them on the wrists. And it's unclear if the companies have publicly shared the full extent of this meddling — or how much fake news or suspicious bots actually spread information on their sites.

By the numbers: An Axios-SurveyMonkey poll conducted last week found the following views:

  • 54% see Russians' use of technology platforms to meddle in U.S. politics as a serious issue that warrants investigation; 41% see it as a distraction.
  • 51% say social media does more to harm than help democracy and free speech; overall 45% say social media does more to help.
  • When asked who has "a responsibility to identify and prevent foreign governments' interference in U.S. politics and elections" via tech platforms, 53% say both the federal government and the tech companies should share the burden.
  • Yet, 43% say "neither" when asked whom they trust more to keep such foreign influence off the platforms. Just 20% said they trust them both.
  • 54% of those surveyed say they prefer human screening to monitor for inappropriate content, while 38% are fine with computer algorithms to do the job.

Be smart: Google, Facebook and Twitter see themselves as purveyors of free speech that strengthens democracy rather than weakens it. Sources close to the companies tell us they are working hard to strike the right balance between acting as a neutral platform for all speech and a trusted space free of extremist views or illegitimate ads and content. Still, at least for now, they enjoy high popularity with their users and their businesses are thriving. Whether this crisis truly becomes existential for them depends on how they handle the congressional interrogations this week while the public is watching.

Go deeper: Americans worried about Russian influence on elections.

(Survey methodology: The data reported here come from an online survey conducted by SurveyMonkey Oct. 23-26, among 5,474 adults and has a modeled error margin of 2 percentage points. Respondents for this survey were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Data have been weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 18 and over.)

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