SKEPTICAL ABOUT CORPORATIONS
For many of those who consult consumer reviews online, the one major hesitation is the fear that companies selling the product have planted the positive responses. “I tend to look at Amazon reviews and a few blogs,” said Justin Merritt, a music professor in Northfield, Minn. “I always have in the back of my mind that a lot of reviews are planted, so I’m always a little bit skeptical.” That concern, which surfaced surprisingly often in interviews, reflects a broader suspicion in the survey about the motivations of businesses that are active on Facebook, Twitter, or other sites.
Among those who regularly use social media, just one in five said that companies use such sites primarily “to collect feedback … so they can improve their businesses and personally respond to questions.” Nearly three in four said that corporations instead use these tools to “more easily advertise their products and services and collect information about current and potential customers so they can increase their profits.” Social media users were even more skeptical than those respondents who don’t heavily frequent such sites.
Social-media users assessed corporations more charitably on another set of questions. Nearly three-fifths tend to view companies that are active on social media as more “accessible and responsive to the questions and concerns of people” like them. Just under half said a company’s visibility made it more likely that they would view that firm as open in its business practices or dependable in its actions. But only 42 percent said that this social-media visibility influences them to see businesses as more trustworthy.
Thibault, the Connecticut technology manager, said she believes that companies use social media not to get closer to their customers but to be further insulated from them. “You’re cut off from traditional methods of contacting them,” she said. “It’s impossible to call companies; they want to put you on a live Web chat all the time. It’s purposefully removed.”
Actually, almost three-fifths of poll respondents said they have directly contacted businesses (through e-mail, letters, or phone calls) after either positive or negative experiences. But Thibault’s suspicion connects with a persistent strain of skepticism about the motivations of big institutions, both public and private. Overall, just 42 percent of those surveyed viewed major corporations as responsive to the public’s concerns; 45 percent considered them trustworthy; and 33 percent rated them as transparent in their business practices. Businesses scored best on reliability, with 52 percent rating them as consistent and dependable in their actions. (On each measure, young adults were somewhat more positive on corporate motivations than older people.)
SUSPICIOUS ABOUT GOVERNMENT
It might be cold comfort in the corner office, but in a separate question, government scored considerably worse than the private sector on reliability (with only 39 percent rating it consistent and reliable in its actions) and no better on the other three measures. When respondents were asked which institutions they trust as information sources, the federal government (at 51 percent) and major corporations (42 percent) scraped the bottom of a list topped by small and local businesses (nearly nine in 10) and local and state government (around two-thirds). Political candidates faced even more skepticism than corporations from social-media users about their reasons for using such sites: Just one in six saw a genuine effort by candidates to “more easily interact with voters and collect feedback,” while almost three in four thought they participated to “more easily advertise their campaigns and positions and … increase their chances of winning” campaigns.
When asked if the emergence of the Internet and social media has made it easier to be a well-informed citizen, both the public overall and social-media users divided more closely than they did on the comparable question about consumerism. Only 47 percent of all adults said that the information explosion had better equipped them as a citizen by making it easier to research candidates and issues; 41 percent said that it had made it harder “because there is now too much information to manage, and it is hard to know what information is reliable and trustworthy.” For social-media users, the division was 55 percent positive and 40 percent negative—higher than the public overall, but still well below the balance among the digitally active on the question about consuming.
Yet for all the ways that Americans praise the Internet for helping them as individual consumers in the marketplace, they are much more uncertain about its impact on their collective influence on the big public and private institutions in their lives. Generally, the poll suggests, Americans feel they have the most influence over the most narrowly focused interactions. Almost exactly half of those surveyed said they considered major corporations “somewhat” responsive “to complaints about negative experiences”; another 13 percent considered them “very responsive.” “I think you have more options to voice your opinion than you used to,” said Merkle, the retired shop owner. “When I was growing up, you had to go through a formal process to contact a company. You had to write a letter and go to the post office. Now you have the ability to contact and communicate with companies very easily.”