Weber Shandwick Poll Says Nearly Two-Thirds of the American Public Believes Social Media is Undermining Civility in America
Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, one of the world’s most widely recognized experts on CEO and corporate reputation who has also led national studies on civility for nearly the past decade, will serve as the keynote speaker at the 2019 Greenlee Summit: Communications and Civility in Our Democracy on Friday, Sept. 6, in the Scheman Building, Iowa State Center, at Iowa State University.
Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for global public relations firm Weber Shandwick, will share insights from the firm’s latest installment of Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey. The poll is conducted annually by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research to gauge Americans’ attitudes toward civility in a variety of areas impacting American society and daily life.
The most recent research, conducted in February 2019, shows that nearly two-thirds of the American public believes social media is undermining civility in America.
Gaines-Ross, who has led industry-leading thought leadership work for Weber Shandwick for the past 15 years, said of the agency’s most recent 2019 research: “Americans believe that social media/the Internet, the White House, politicians and the news media are primarily responsible for the erosion of civility in America. Journalists and public relations and advertising professionals need to come together to restore civil discourse in our public squares, our workplaces and our institutions. We have the skills and expertise to help build a national civility culture for posterity.”
Jeff White, vice president of business development at Flynn Wright in Des Moines who is leading the Greenlee Advisory Council’s support of Greenlee’s planning of the 2019 summit, said: “Journalism, advertising and PR professionals are the country’s greatest stewards of mass communication and social media interactions. This year’s Greenlee Summit has a unique focus on the relationship between communications, politics and civility. Various speakers, panels and moderated discussions will identify how we can foster civil discourse, and help people understand we are a more informed and productive society when we are committed to civility – as individuals and professionals.”
To register for the Greenlee Summit please open this link: https://registration.extension.iastate.edu/emc00/PublicSignIn.aspx?&SessionID=ejlfe3ejmff5fh5fepeim&Lang=*
More details on Weber Shandwick’s study on civility follow in a news release released by Weber Shandwick in late June:
NEW YORK (June 26, 2019) — A poll that has tracked the state of civility in the United States since 2010 once again finds that the vast majority of Americans – 93 percent – identify a civility problem, with most classifying it as a “major” problem (68 percent). Contributing heavily to the cause of incivility is social media, with 63 percent of Americans saying that, in their experience, the impact of social media on civility been more negative than positive. Only 9 percent say it has been more positive than negative. Civility in America 2019: Solutions for Tomorrow by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate was conducted in 2019 with KRC Research.
“Since the inception of this study nearly a decade ago, the eroding state of public discourse in America has been of great concern to Americans,” Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, said. “Although social media has risen over the years as a source of incivility in this nation, other factors such as politicians, the news media and America’s youth are also consistently blamed. We remain optimistic that Americans can rise above the incivility they encounter on social media and engage in less divisive discourse in every aspect of their lives.”
The finding that social media has had a more negative than positive impact on civility is an experience common to multiple demographic groups. Negativity decidedly outweighs positivity by large margins regardless of gender, generation and race. Even within the generation that is native to social media – Generation Z (who in the Weber Shandwick study are 16-21 year olds) – a massive gap emerges of nearly 4:1 between those who say social media’s effect has been more negative than positive vs. more positive than negative (56 percent vs. 15 percent, respectively). Hispanics express the most positivity with 27 percent reporting that, in their experience, social media has had a more positive than negative impact.
Social Media is Perceived at the Root of Incivility and Increasingly Problematic
More than one-half of Americans (54 percent) expect the general tone and level of civility in the country to decline even further during the next few years. Among this group, 57 percent believe that the Internet and/or social media are to blame, a factor that tops the list of 19 possible choices.
Weber Shandwick first presented “the Internet and social media” as a potential cause of civility erosion in 2012. At that time, just 24 percent who saw civility declining identified it as a cause. The increase in blaming the Internet and social media for the demise of civility has more than doubled since the firm began investigating its role (from 24 percent in 2012 to 57 percent in 2019).
Over the years, the number of uncivil online interactions that Americans have experienced has grown. In 2013, they claimed an average of 4.4 uncivil interactions online per week. That rate is now at an average of 5.5 uncivil interactions online per week. Interestingly, this trend of increasing uncivil online interactions has flipped since our tracking of this metric began to reveal a reduction in uncivil in-person interactions, from 5.9 in 2013 to 4.7 in 2019.
This year for the first time, Weber Shandwick surveyed a segment of high school-aged teens, 16 and 17 year olds, to assess their perceptions of the state of civility. Among those who expect civility to worsen during the next few years (69 percent), by far their top reason for the erosion is social media (66 percent). This is probably linked to high schoolers’ greater likelihood of reporting experiences of incivility on social media (57 percent), compared to their older 18-21 year old Gen Z cohorts (51 percent), Millennials (47 percent), Gen Xers (40 percent) and Boomers (33 percent).
A Civil Workplace Benefits Employers and Employees Alike
Despite the unwavering sentiment that America has a civility problem, a positive note is sounded on the general level of civility in the workplace. Nine in 10 Americans who work with others (89 percent) describe their place of employment as very or somewhat civil. This has been a consistent finding since Weber Shandwick began asking about civility in the workplace in 2017.
A civil workplace affects job performance in positive ways. Nearly eight in 10 employees with coworkers (78 percent) report that civility at work provides tangible upsides. Four in 10 say civility at work improves their work morale and increases their loyalty to their employer (40 percent each) and nearly as many say it improves their quality of work (36 percent).
When people encounter incivility at work, their most commonly reported reactions are to ignore the person acting uncivilly (54 percent) and to remove themselves from the situation (49 percent). Far fewer speak directly to the uncivil perpetrator (24 percent) or contact their supervisor or HR department (11 percent) to report the uncivil behavior.
Americans See Solutions for Improving Civility in America
In the 2019 poll, Weber Shandwick made a point to ask Americans what could be done to improve civility and the extent to which people would be personally willing to make a difference.
“Civil discourse is a key to a healthy democracy,” Pam Jenkins, president of Weber Shandwick Global Public Affairs, said. “The public has identified our civility problem, and it is now up to all of us to encourage the solutions that will make our government and society work better.”
The types of actions that people believe would improve the level of civility include broad support for solutions ranging from greater parental responsibility to corporate measures to civility training.
- Parents teaching civility to their children (55 percent)
• Warning or taking disciplinary action against people who are uncivil in the workplace (42 percent)
• Civility education in schools and colleges (42 percent)
• Civility training in the workplace (37 percent)
• Employers training people how to intervene when others are being treated uncivilly (35 percent)
• Employers encouraging employees to report incivility at work (35 percent)
On a more personal level, Americans selected actions – from a list of 12 – that they would do themselves to improve civility. The vast majority – 88 percent – selected at least one action. On average, they chose 3.4 actions, demonstrating that there is desire among Americans to make civility a personal responsibility. The most common actions are:
- Making an effort to be civil when treated uncivilly (46 percent)
• Encouraging family, friends and coworkers to be civil (45 percent)
• Voting for political leaders who behave in a civil way (43 percent)
• Committing to one act of civility – say or do something nice – regularly (38 percent)
• Speaking up against, or doing something about, incivility (35 percent)
In addition, a noteworthy six in 10 Americans (62 percent) reported that if there was an organization that made it easier to support civility or get involved, they would be very or somewhat likely to participate or support it.
National Institute for Civil Discourse Executive Director Emerita Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer said: “Americans know that for our system of democracy to work, we have to talk and listen to each other. It is heartening to see the data showing that people of all ages see solutions to reducing incivility and are ready to take action whether that is speaking out when they see incivility or voting for leaders who pledge to be civil. NICD stands ready to support citizens and all the institutions that shape our public and political discourse.”
Can social media also be a solution for incivility?
Given its role as a top driver of incivility according to our survey respondents, social media usage could also be used to help turn the tide. Nearly four in 10 Americans (38 percent) say that they would employ social media to improve civility by taking at least one of the following actions:
- Posting more positive things in social media about things they see happening (23 percent)
- Flagging information shared in social media that is uncivil (20 percent)
• Publicly sharing or posting stories photos or videos about people who act uncivilly (13 percent)
The public wants social media companies to help mitigate the uncivil behavior their platforms are perceived to be encouraging. Nearly six in 10 Americans (57 percent) are of the opinion that social media companies should take a larger role in helping improve the level of civility in our nation. While this isn’t as high as the responsibility Americans believe elected officials should take – the top-ranked institution for taking a larger role at 64 percent – it is on par with the responsibility of state and local governments (57 percent).
Please click here for the full Civility in America 2019: Solutions for Tomorrow report and presentation.
About the Research
Annually since 2010, Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, have released Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey. KRC Research conducted this eighth wave of the Civility in America survey online from February 13 to February 19, 2019, among a sample of 1,230 U.S. adults 18 years and older, drawn from a national consumer panel. All percentages in our analysis, except those for Gen Z and 16-17 year olds, are drawn from our sample of adults 18 years and older. This year, we added a separate sample of 100 16-17 year olds and analyzed a separate Gen Z sample (16-21) to gain a snapshot of the youngest generation. Percentages in our analysis for Gen Z and 16-17 year olds are drawn from this separate sample. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish, as determined by the respondent’s preference. KRC established demographic quotas and weighted data based on U.S. Census data (age, gender, education, income, race/ethnicity and region). Civility is defined in the survey as follows: “By civility we mean polite and respectful conduct and expression.”
About Weber Shandwick
Weber Shandwick is a leading global communications network that delivers next-generation solutions to brands, businesses and organizations in major markets around the world. Led by world-class strategic and creative thinkers and activators, we have won some of the most prestigious awards in the industry. Weber Shandwick was named to Ad Age’sBest Places to Work in 2019 and was the only PR firm designated an Ad Age A-List Agency Standout in 2017 and 2018. Weber Shandwick was also honored as PRWeek’s Global Agency of the Year in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, and earned 25 Lions at the 2019 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Data-led, with earned ideas at the core, the agency deploys leading and emerging technologies to inform strategy, develop critical insights and heighten impact across sectors and specialty areas, including brand and B2B marketing, healthcare marketing, change management, employee engagement, corporate reputation, crisis management, data and analytics, technology, public affairs, social impact and financial communications. Weber Shandwick is part of the Interpublic Group (NYSE: IPG). For more information, visit http://www.webershandwick.com
About Powell Tate
Founded by two of Washington, D.C.’s most respected press secretaries – Democrat Jody Powell and Republican Sheila Tate – Powell Tate has been one of Washington, D.C.’s leading public affairs firms for more than two decades, maintaining its bipartisan heritage while developing cutting edge programs that communicate across the political aisle and multiple platforms. Recently cited as one of Washington, D.C.’s “Best Places to Work” by the Washington Post and Washington Business Journal, Powell Tate is a division of Weber Shandwick. For more information, visit www.powelltate.com
About KRC Research
KRC Research is a global full-service nonpartisan opinion research and strategy firm. A unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies (NYSE: IPG), KRC Research offers the quality and custom service of a small firm with the reach of a global organization. For over 30 years, KRC Research has worked on behalf of corporations, governments, not-for-profits and the communications firms that represent them. Staffed with multidisciplinary research professionals, KRC combines sophisticated research tools with real-world communications experience. For more information, visit www.krcresearch.com
Barbara Iverson retired in December 2016 after more than 40 years in the profession and with her final 20 years as president of Weber Shandwick’s robust financial services industry practice. She now consults for organizations and companies, plus takes on writing and editing projects. Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm with headquarters in New York City, is viewed as a powerhouse in the financial services industry. Under Barb’s leadership, the financial services industry practice specialized in retirement services, banking, insurance, asset and wealth management, electronic payments, and tax compliance and administration.