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America doesn't trust Facebook

Photography by William Joel | Illustrations by Garret Beard

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It’s hard to love Facebook — but it’s harder to imagine life without it. A Verge survey found that among the big five tech companies, Facebook had the lowest percentage of people who liked its products and services. But among those who did like it, more people said they greatly enjoyed using Facebook than said they greatly liked Apple or Microsoft.

In a polarizing age, Facebook appears to be one of the most divisive companies. Fewer people said they would recommend Facebook to a friend or family member than would recommend Amazon, Google, Apple, or Microsoft. More people say they greatly distrust it than any member of the big five. And yet a majority of people said they would care very much if Facebook went away — more than said they would greatly miss Apple. And a majority say Facebook’s effect on society is positive overall. The survey, conducted in partnership with consulting firm Reticle Research from September 28th to October 10th, included 1,520 people nationally representative of the US, based on 2016 US Census estimates.

“It’s good to see that people get a lot out of Facebook, but we know we have a lot of work to do,” Facebook said in a statement.

Despite Facebook’s ubiquity in public life, there remain large gaps in the public understanding about what Facebook is, and how it works.

About a third of respondents said Instagram is “cooler” than Facebook

Slightly more than 60 percent of respondents were unaware that Facebook owns Instagram. In part, this is purposeful: the company plays down the association in its design, and does not require a Facebook account to use Instagram. About a third of respondents said Instagram is “cooler” than Facebook, and 36 percent said they enjoyed using it more than Facebook.

But Facebook is experimenting with stronger connections. After Facebook saw a tepid response to the Stories feature it added to the News Feed, it began allowing Instagram users to cross-post their stories to Facebook. If Facebook integrates the service further, survey results suggest Instagram could alienate users who prefer it as a distinctive alternative.

On privacy issues, Google scored slightly higher among respondents for transparency around how it uses people’s data. More respondents said Google offered better tools for controlling what advertisers can see about their lives. Google also scored higher marks for “providing useful services,” though nearly as many said its services were roughly on par with Facebook’s for utility.

Despite mixed feelings about Facebook’s privacy track record, survey respondents showed significant interest in a possible Facebook home speaker to take on the Amazon Echo and its copycats. About 30 percent expressed a significant or strong interest in a Facebook home speaker.

News that the device was in the works was first reported in July. The device, which is expected to include a 15-inch touchscreen and enable users to make video calls, may make its debut at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in May.

A Facebook take on the Echo will put questions of user trust to an important test. Giving Facebook access to a camera and microphone inside the home requires privacy trade-offs that the company hasn’t yet explored with its user base. The healthy number of survey respondents who expressed interest in Facebook’s home speaker suggests that the company may find a market for its device after all.

The most cited reason for using Facebook among respondents was just what you would expect: “It helps me stay in touch” (75 percent). Other common reasons cited for using Facebook include “it has helped me reconnect” (62 percent), “it has helped me make new friends” (33.6 percent), and “Facebook is cool” (26.51 percent).

The top reported use of Facebook was to send private messages to friends or family

News stories about Facebook in the past year have frequently focused on the way it can be used to spread hoaxes, or how Russian agents bought ads on the service as part of an effort to meddle in the US election. But survey respondents suggested that most of their interactions on the platform are reserved to communicating with individuals already in their circle. Among respondents, the top reported use of Facebook was to send private messages to friends or family, at 66.2 percent.

The numbers illustrate why Facebook is so aggressive in buying upstart social networks when it can (Instagram, WhatsApp) and cloning them when it cannot (Snap). The company’s users experience it primarily as a utility that lets them communicate with people they know; if those people move their conversations elsewhere, Facebook’s fortunes could reverse sharply.

The next three most popular Facebook uses were to share personal photos or videos (55 percent); and read, watch, or share news about the world (52 percent). The last number is interesting given Facebook’s conflicted relationship with news content in the feed. On one hand, it has invested in efforts to support journalism and reduce the spread of fake news; on the other, it is currently testing a version of the News Feed that contains nearly no news whatsoever.

Despite an ongoing controversy about the spread of fake news through the platform, survey respondents largely said most articles shared on Facebook are trustworthy. About half of respondents view Facebook as being “about as trustworthy” as other news sources. But the virality of highly partisan content is also having an impact in the political leaning of the stories users see: More than twice as many respondents said that Facebook is more biased than other news sources, compared to those who said it was less biased.

Amid a debate about how Facebook should treat potentially objectionable content, survey respondents showed a strong preference for Facebook blocking content that promotes violence, hate, or racism. Majorities also supported blocking sexually explicit content and “news stories that are likely untrue.”

Respondents showed less support for blocking news stories that are likely biased, “views I may find offensive,” and religious and political views that the respondent does not share.

Viewed from one angle, the generally positive sentiment toward the service among survey respondents should cheer Facebook executives. It comes in the wake of a bruising year that saw the company weather multiple public relations crises related to the spread of hoaxes on its platform and the apparently illegal purchase of political advertising by alleged Russian agents. The crises culminated into a push earlier this month for new regulations on Facebook and other big tech companies, led by a bipartisan group of senators.

And yet, looked at another way, the survey data indicates how precarious Facebook’s position is. Users say they gravitate toward its products because of the way it has come to own their online relationships between family and friends — something Facebook has managed through a combination of weak regulatory oversight and savvy acquisitions of companies like Instagram and WhatsApp. If trust in the company continues to decline, and regulators take a stronger interest in acquisitions like the company’s recent purchase of teen-focused poll app tbh, the company’s fortunes could turn dramatically.

In the interim, little is likely to change. But the survey data suggests there was good reason for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to mount his nationwide photo-op tour of America this year. As trust in the company remains poor, it becomes more vulnerable. While Facebook finds itself in a position of strength on many issues, the survey data suggest several areas in which support for Facebook is soft.

Correction, 11:09 a.m.: This article originally included a slide that asked respondents about Facebook’s business model. Due to an error in the wording of the question, the slide and corresponding analysis have been removed.

Correction, 11:41 .m.: This article originally misstated the number of respondents who said they would greatly miss Facebook compared to Apple. The number is more, not less.