Online harms: A snapshot of public opinion

“It’s a very strange state of affairs online…” – Participant in our men’s focus group

What happens over the next few months will likely shape the Internet for years to come: the election in the US, where battles over misinformation and political advertising are raging: the continuing response to the Covid-19 crisis, which has forced a reckoning with the sudden shift of millions of people’s lives online. A date in the diary that makes fewer headlines, but whose significance should not be underestimated: the UK will be laying out its intended direction in tackling online harms. 

Since the Government set out its intentions in the Online Harms White Paper in 2019, debate and discussion on its proper scope and implementation has been abundant. But what’s been lacking is an in-depth involvement of the public in these conversations. 

In light of this, we wanted to investigate what the public think about online harms. We carried out a nationally representative poll of over 2000 people, complemented with two focus groups, in summer 2020, to provide a snapshot of where public opinion lies on a wide variety of online harm – where there is consensus, and where there are still divisions or uncertainties. 

Today we’re publishing our results here.

Looking at the results, there is a clear call to action: there is very high concern about a wide variety of online harms, and a belief that everyone, from individual internet users to the companies who run online services to banks to regulators and government to international institutions, share the responsibility for preventing online harm. 

We found that people wanted something to be done, and had strong opinions about the risks of the online world. So something is going right: with deep concern amongst the public, and a desire for action, the UK is actively working towards introducing legislation which would require platforms to take meaningful action on online harms. 

But the public aren’t a monolith: different groups feel differently about what is the right balance of rights and freedoms online. We found in some cases, that people who had personally experienced serious online harms, like violent threats, hate speech or harassment, were actually less likely than the population overall to support greater controls being imposed on online freedoms. 

And we also saw concerns and divisions on who should get to decide what counted as harmful, or on what the actual impact of proposed action on harms would be. People want a middle way, that will tackle online harms effectively without infringing on the experiences or rights of users in general, but aren’t sure how that can be done. 

This research points to ways that the process and outcomes of upcoming regulation can garner public support and consent: through meaningful engagement with different groups affected by online harms in different ways; through transparency about what decisions are being made, and on what basis; through clear oversight mechanisms to oversee a regulator; and clear, evidenced criteria for the standards that platforms will be held to. But it also told us something else: that the public want to be engaged with the complexities of these decisions, if only they’re asked.

From this snapshot alone, it’s clear that further public consultation is essential to understanding how we should tackle online harms. But we shouldn’t stop there. This legislation is also the chance to articulate an overarching vision: for an inclusive and empowering internet that protects and promotes liberal democratic rights. Without the lighthouse of this vision, implementing regulation risks being fragmented, inconsistent, unclear, and ultimately ineffective. 

The UK has a chance to set out a blueprint for how regulation of the online world can be done right. The more connected this process is to the citizens it seeks to protect, the more legitimate the outcomes will be: the more power it holds to compel action from platforms: and the better example it can set to others across the globe. This research is just a first step in the conversation: there is still more work to be done to meaningfully bring the voices of citizens into shaping the future of the internet. 

This project was commissioned by BT. 

See the write-up of our results here.

Find our polling and focus group toplines here. 

Find the full polling tables here.

We also held a panel discussion to launch our findings, which you can watch below: