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Survey: Social Media Should Remove Offensive Posts

A majority of respondents to a new Pew Research poll say social media companies have a responsibility to remove offensive content from third party posters, they just can't agree on what that is. 

That is at the crux of the current debate in Washington on what responsibility those sites have, and should have, over content posted by their users. Currently, sites like Facebook and Twitter have a carveout from liability due to the Communications Decency Act (Sec. 230), but Congress is eyeing that exemption with arched eyebrows after Russian election meddling, terrorist speech, online sex trafficking, allegations of censoring conservative content, and more. 

Related: Court Upholds Edge Protection from Third-Party Liability 

A solid majority of the survey--62% to 31%--said that social media companies have a responsibility to remove offensive content, but only 31% said they have either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in those companies' ability to determine what should be removed. That may because the respondents themselves aren't sure how to define it. Majorities said the country was not generally in agreement on what language was considered sexist (65%) or racist (61%). While 60% said people are too easily offended by the language of others, they were split on just what constitutes genuinely offensive speech, with about half (51%) saying they know it when they hear it and the other half (48%) saying it was hard to know.  

A majority found that President Donald Trump has changed the tone of political discourse and debate for the worse. 

Related: Sen. Hawley Says Big Tech's Sec. 230 'Sweetheart Deal' Must End 

According to the poll, 55%, say the that is the case, while only 24% say he has changed it for the better. And a large majority (78%) said that "heated or aggressive language"--the President has called journalists public enemies and said his political opponents were out to take down his administration--directed by elected officials against certain groups or people makes violence against those more likely. 

And the respondents were also discomfited by what the President says as well as how he says it.  

The survey found that three quarters (76%) said his comments make them feel concerned, while almost as many said they leave them confused (70%), embarrassed (69%) or exhausted (67%). But 54% also said they are sometimes entertained by his utterances. 

Perhaps providing some insight into the bitter partisanship now characterizing the relationship between the two major parties, the survey found that while 78% of Democrats said it is "very important" for Republican elected officials to treat Democratic elected officials with respect, only 47% said Democratic elected officials should do likewise with Republicans. 

There is a similar disconnect with Republicans--75% of the respondents said Democrats should treat their Republican counterparts with respect, but only 49% said Republicans should do likewise with Democrats. 

A finding the President may want to note: The survey found that 73% said it was "never acceptable" to say something negative about their opponent's physical appearance. 

The poll was conducted April 29-May 13 among 10,170 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. 

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.