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Partisans in the U.S. increasingly divided on whether offensive content online is taken seriously enough

Americans are divided on whether offensive content online is taken seriously enough and on which is more important online: free speech or feeling safe. Republicans and Democrats have grown further apart when it comes to these issues since 2017.

Overall, 55% of Americans say many people take offensive content they see online too seriously, while a smaller share (42%) say offensive content online is too often excused as not a big deal, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted in early September 2020. In addition, about half of Americans (53%) say it’s more important for people to be able to feel welcome and safe online, compared with 45% who believe it’s more important for people to be able to speak their minds freely online, according to an earlier Center survey fielded in July 2020.

Pew Research Center conducted these studies to understand Americans’ views about whether offensive content online is taken seriously enough and on which is more important online: free speech or feeling safe. For the analyses on offensive content, we surveyed 10,093 U.S. adults from Sept. 8-13, 2020, while 10,211 U.S. adults were surveyed from July 13-19, 2020 for the analyses about the balance between free speech and feeling safe online.

Everyone who took part in these surveys is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. This gives us confidence that any sample can represent the whole U.S. adult population. (See our Methods 101 explainer on random sampling.) The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions, responses and methodology used for this report.

Americans’ differences over these issues are tied to partisanship. Roughly six-in-ten Democrats and independents who lean Democratic (59%) say offensive content online is too often excused as not a big deal, while just a quarter of their Republican counterparts agree – a 34 percentage point gap. On the other hand, 72% of Republicans and Republican leaners say many people take offensive content they see online too seriously, while about four-in-ten Democrats say the same.

Partisan differences are also present today when asking about feeling safe versus having freedom of speech online. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think people being able to feel welcome and safe online is more important than people being able to speak their minds freely online (60% vs. 45%), while Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say people being able to speak their minds freely online is more important (54% vs. 38%).

While the overall shares of the public supporting each perspective are nearly identical to when the Center last asked these questions in January 2017, partisan differences have more than doubled in this time. The partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether they believe offensive content online was taken seriously enough has grown from 13 percentage points in 2017 to 33 points today. And while Republicans and Democrats held similar views about the appropriate balance between free speech and feeling safe online in 2017, these partisan differences grew fivefold by 2020, from a 3-point gap to a 15-point gap.

Within the parties, there are ideological differences in partisans’ views on offensive content. There is a 16-point gap between the shares of liberal Democrats and those in the party with moderate to conservative views saying offensive content online is too often excused as not a big deal (68% vs. 52%). A smaller gap is present when comparing conservative Republicans with those who are moderate to liberal on the issue of whether many people take offensive content they see online too seriously (74% vs. 68%). Conservative Republicans are also more likely than moderate to liberal Republicans to say people being able to speak their minds freely online is more important than people being able to feel welcome and safe online (57% vs. 49%).

Gender differences are also seen within each party. Republican men stand out for valuing people being able to speak their minds freely online over people being able to feel welcome and safe online. These Republican men (63%) are more likely than Republican women (44%) and both Democratic men (44%) and women (34%) to back that idea. Similarly, 76% of Republican men say many people take offensive content they see online too seriously, compared with 67% of Republican women who say the same.

While the shares of Democrats who support this view are much smaller, Democratic men are more likely to voice the view that offensive content online is taken too seriously compared with Democratic women (43% vs. 36%). These gender differences on the issue of whether people take offensive content they see online too seriously are largely due to the differences between conservative Republican men and women (80% vs. 68%) and liberal Democratic men and women (36% vs. 27%); their more moderate counterparts differed little by gender.

Regardless of political affiliation, women in both parties are more likely than their male counterparts to think offensive content online isn’t taken seriously enough and to prioritize people feeling safe over people being able to express themselves freely online. Even when conservative Republican women are considered, about half or more of women say people being able to feel welcome and safe online is more important than people being able to speak their minds freely online.

In addition to valuing people feeling safe online and thinking offensive content online isn’t taken seriously enough, both Democrats (77%) and women (72%) are more likely to say social media companies have a responsibility to remove offensive content from their platforms as compared with Republicans and men (52% and 59%, respectively), according to a 2019 Center survey.

Note: Here are the questions, responses and methodology used for this report.

CORRECTION (October 2020): The methodology section has been updated to reflect the correct cumulative response rate. None of the study findings or conclusions were affected.

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