Is Facebook losing its base?

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CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg (C) is escorted by Capitol Police officers as he walks down a hallway to the office of Democratic Senator from California Dianne Feinstein, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 09 April 2018.

The social media giant is already facing a credibility crisis, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg (in a suit, uncharacteristically) testifying before Congress amid complaints that Facebook violated the privacy of its users and allowed the site to be used for fake news and Russian-bot disinformation.

But a new poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics shows that the site is held in low regard by young people. The poll of 18-29-year-olds found that 27 percent of respondents trust Facebook to “do the right thing” all or most of the time. Twitter, President Donald Trump’s communications vehicle of choice, clocked in with the same low trust level.

The poll, the IOP’s 35th biennial national survey of young people, was conducted before the revelations that the London-based elections consultant Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal information of Facebook users in an alleged effort to influence U.S. elections and the British Brexit vote, said John Della Volpe, director of the poll.

Both Amazon and Google got higher marks for good behaviour than the social media sites, with 45 percent counting on the online retailer to do the right thing all or most of the time, and 44 percent sharing that view about the Internet search engine.

“Amazon is where we buy things, and Google is where we find things,” Della Volpe said. But Facebook, is being viewed with increasing skepticism by young people who worry that their personal information is being collected to sell them things, said Teddy Landis, a 20-year-old Harvard sophomore who is student chairman of the Harvard Public Opinion Project.

“This generation is becoming more in tune with privacy, not being as willing to give up their information” as they once were, said freshman Will Matheson, a member of the opinion project. “They connect that fear to Facebook.”

Facebook began in the early 2000s at Harvard, where then-student Mark Zuckerberg started “Facemash” (often described as a Harvard “hot-or-not” site) and turned it into a multibillion-dollar site where “friends” could share news and photos, as well as personal profile information.

The site came to play an important role in campaigns and elections. Barack Obama’s campaign, for example, found that getting endorsed and mentioned in Facebook messages was often more effective than paying for TV campaign ads, since voters were more likely to trust information from someone they knew than from a professionally produced campaign commercial.

A study by University of California San Diego researchers found that in 2010, Facebook users whose feeds carried a message stating “Today is Election Day” and a clickable “I voted” button were more likely to report having actually voted than people who did not get the messages on their Facebook pages.

Social media is still a popular way for young people to connect, according to the IOP’s earlier polling. The spring 2017 survey, for example, showed that 81 percent of youth have a Facebook account – 56 percent are on Instagram, 53 percent are on Snapchat and 42 percent are on Twitter. But 54 percent thought more than a quarter of what is on Facebook is “fake news,” the poll found.

The current survey did not include a question about whether Facebook is a reliable source of information, but Landis said he personally has steered away from the social media platform recently.

“I have grown uncomfortable with the amount of information Facebook has about me,” he said.

Other institutions fared poorly with young people as well, though trust was higher as the entities became more local. Just 22 percent trust the president to do the right thing all or most of the time, with the federal government, at 21 percent, and Congress, at 18 percent, coming in even lower. However, 34 percent say they have faith in their state governments all or most of the time, and 38 percent say the same about their local governments.

College or university administrations – a target of ire and sit-ins by students of an earlier protest era – had the trust of 61 percent of respondents (the last category was asked only of students).

When it comes to law enforcement, the trend was similar: 42 percent trust the FBI to do the right thing all or most of the time; 35 percent felt that way about the U.S. Justice Department, and a majority – 52 percent – had faith in their local police departments.
“The more local government is, the more tangible it is,” Della Volpe said, explaining the preference for closer-in institutions. But what’s really driving the disparity, the Harvard students said, was a disgust with Washington and its political players. “You people are just upset with national institutions broadly,” Matheson said.

The poll also found that young people are more inclined to vote this fall than they were in any midterm election in the poll’s 18-year history: 37 percent of under-30s said they will “definitely” be voting in November, compared to 23 percent in 2014 and 31 percent in 2010 – the last wave election.

Young voters are a potentially powerful group – but only if they show up. Obama, for example, benefited greatly from youth voting, both in the primaries, where aggressive campaigning on college campuses helped him with the 2008 Iowa caucuses, as well as the general elections. Obama took two-thirds of the 18-29-year-old vote in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012, according to exit polls.

But getting voters to turn up at the polls for midterms is a struggle, especially when it comes to young voters. A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that just over a fifth, 21.5 percent, of 18-29-year-olds voted in the last midterms, in 2014. That compares to the 36.4 percent of eligible voters overall who cast ballots in 2014.

The IOP poll showed that 58 percent of youth favor Democratic control of Congress over Republican, at 36 percent. But neither party is above water when it comes to approval of their job performances. Democrats in Congress got a 41 percent approval rating from the under-30s, with Republicans earning the approval of just 24 percent