the news frontier

Americans Only Kind of Trust the Internet

And other findings from an Annenberg study
July 28, 2010

The Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School released their 2010 report on Friday, “Surveying the Digital Future,” and its findings reveal some interesting and contradictory feelings that Americans have about online content and the Internet in general.

Not surprisingly, Internet usage has increased in each of the nine years that Annenberg has conducted their study. According to the Center’s press release, America’s Internet usage per week has doubled since 2000, and the number of American households with broadband has increased eightfold in that time. However, there are still some notable gaps among certain age groups: of study participants ages thirty-six to forty-five, 15 percent did not use the Internet at all. Among ages forty-six to fifty-five, 19 percent were non-users as well.

Even just among people in the study who do go online often, there was a noticeable decrease in overall trust of the Internet and online content. From the press release:

*Sixty-one percent of users said that only half or less of online information is reliable—a new low for the Digital Future Project.

*Even more disturbing is that 14 percent of Internet users said that only a small portion or none of the information online is reliable—a percentage that has grown for the past three years and is now at the highest level thus far in the Digital Future Project.

Even when asked about the Web sites they visited most often, 22 percent of people said that only half or less of the information they found there was reliable. Makes you wonder why they don’t find different favorite sites? Or is this a subset of Internet users who will inherently distrust most things they find online, simply because it’s online?

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The study’s questions also probed into the issue of trust in general: not just trust in online content, but concerns about the security and reliability of the technology that makes the Internet tick.

*Only 46 percent of users said they have some trust or a lot of trust in the Internet in general. Nine percent of users have no trust in the Internet.

Another telling statistic: When asked “Does communication technology make the world a better place?” only 56 percent of Internet users said yes, a number that is down from the peak of 66 percent in 2002.

As for the news biz, a disheartening—but far from shocking—revelation was that newspapers were only seen as “important or very important sources of information” for 56 percent of respondents (down from 60 percent in 2008). The Internet, on the other hand, was ranked as important by 78 percent, and television by 68 percent.

It was heartening that only 18 percent said they had stopped subscribing to a newspaper or magazine because they thought they could find the same content online. Likewise, 22 percent of newspaper customers “said they would not miss the print edition of their newspaper” if the print edition ceased production. Those numbers are high, but not as high as we might have come to expect from the media’s funereal drumbeat of the “death of print.”

When the survey participants were asked about how willing they’d be to pay for online content, they generally conceded that, as unwilling as they were, they understood that eventually this would become a necessity. They were split almost down the middle on whether they would prefer seeing Web advertising with their content or having to pay for content. The study found that half of the Internet users “never” click on advertising online, and 70 percent find advertising to be “annoying.” (Wow, only 70 percent?)

The study also said that exactly zero percent of respondents said that they would be willing to pay for Twitter. Tweet that!

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner