SALT LAKE CITY — Ongoing issues regarding Big Tech firms like Amazon, Apple and Facebook and how they wield market power and handle troves of personal data is not sitting well with residents across the country and particularly so in Utah, where many have expressed their marked distrust of those firms in a new poll.
And the same Utahns are only slightly less distrustful of their federal and state governments, though willing to extend a bit more faith to local government leaders.
These findings are all part of a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of 1,000 Utah registered voters. The survey was conducted Feb. 10-16 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Veteran pollster Scott Rasmussen oversaw the polling and said the tech-related findings aren’t a surprise, particularly when one takes a deeper look at Utah’s political landscape.
“The first thing that’s pretty clear when you look at … the tech company numbers is, there’s a partisan difference,” Rasmussen said. “Republicans are more distrustful of bigger tech companies and some feel (those companies) are aiding people on the political left.
“Utah has a bigger percentage of Republicans than the national average, so you’d expect it to be a little bit higher.”
And indeed, when parsed by political affiliation, Utah voters who identified as Republican are significantly less trustful of Amazon, Apple and Facebook than their Democratic counterparts.
The overall rate of Utahns who say they completely distrust or somewhat distrust Facebook to collect and use their personal information and data is 73% — the highest distrust rate of the three Big Tech companies. Some 79% of Republicans have those same opinions about Facebook compared to 55% of Democrats.
Apple did a bit better with the overall audience, with 46% of Utahns rating some level of distrust. Among GOP voters, that number jumps to 57% compared to just 23% of Democrats.
And online shopping heavyweight Amazon was the least suspect of the tech trio, with 41% of Utahns rating some amount distrust. That number jumps to 48% when just looking at Republicans and 25% for the Democrats.
On the other side of the equations, Utahns extended ratings of somewhat trust or completely trust to Amazon at 28% and Apple at 24%. But concerning Facebook, only 9% of Utahns say they somewhat trust or completely trust that company to collect and use their personal information and data.
And a sizable chunk of Utahns occupy neutral territory, ranking their trust in those three companies squarely in the center between distrust and trust. For Amazon, 31% of Utahns ranked their trust down the middle; for Apple it was 30% with 18% for Facebook.
In a national poll conducted by Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity in November, the identical questions earned Amazon, Apple and Facebook higher trust ratings across the board than Utahns are willing to give.
The general U.S. voter audience said they were somewhat distrustful or completely distrustful of Facebook at a 61% rate (compared to Utahns at 73%), Apple at 35% (Utahns at 46%) and Amazon at 29% (with Utahns at 41%).
Rasmussen also noted that the age of respondents plays a role when it comes to assessing how far a tech company should be trusted.
“One of the things that show up in these numbers is older voters are more distrustful than younger voters,” Rasmussen said.
“(Older voters) do remember a time when you actually had privacy. The notion that you take the phone with you because it’s essential and therefore Google knows where you are is bizarre to the older generation. Youngsters who grew up with the internet and a bigger tech presence in their lives are instinctively better about being safe,” he said.
Another factor contributing to Utahns’ dubious predisposition to powerful tech concerns may be simply an evolution of their experience with the platforms and products.
Elizabeth Converse, director of operations for Utah tech sector advocacy group Silicon Slopes Commons, said she believes Utahns are benefitting from the tech industry’s large footprint in Utah — one that directly or indirectly supports 1 of every 7 workers. That, Converse said, is contributing to a more widespread level of general tech savviness.
“Utahns are very, very aware of tech tools that can be used for good and the ones that can be used for bad,” Converse said. “I think people have been learning to be skeptical of things they find on these platforms and doing their own investigations.
“Utah is willing to take the extra clicks to find out.”
Distrust in governments
In a continuation of a national trend that goes back decades, Utahns’ distrust of federal, state and local government to collect and use their personal information and data far outstrips their trust levels.
Rasmussen said when it comes to constituents’ feelings about their various levels of government, that’s been an almost unblemished baseline dating back to the early ‘70s.
“Really, in American history it’s been unusual for people to place a high level of trust in government,” Rasmussen said. “Post-World War II and through the ’50s and ’60s, Americans were somewhat more trusting of government. But since around ’72, a majority of voters have not trusted government.”
Utahns registered the least amount of trust in federal leaders, with 53% rating a completely distrusting or somewhat distrusting level. USU’s national poll found that 49% of Americans distrust the federal government.
Regarding state government, 41% of Utahns register some level of distrust, compared with the national poll results of 34%.
And local government earns 36% of distrust responses among Utahns, compared with 28% in the national survey.
The scale followed a similar pattern on trust ratings with local governments topping the list with 30% giving their locals a completely or somewhat trust rating; followed by state leaders at 28%; and the federal government coming in at 20%.
While the countrywide audience for USU’s polling was more trustful of institutions across the board — be they government or private tech sector — the more dubious views reflected in the Utah findings were not at all surprising, said Christopher Koopman, executive director of the Center for Growth and Opportunity.
“Our findings at a national level seem to be confirmed,” Koopman said. “Given Utah is a more politically conservative and more rural state, you end up with a heightened distrust.”
So how can this insight about Utahns’ sentiments be used moving forward?
The poll expert and industry watchers all agree that a dose of healthy skepticism is generally a good thing, whether applied in viewing the actions and functions of government or big business, but how it actually gets put to use is a point of some conjecture.
Rasmussen said rising distrust of U.S. tech firms is already leading to an increase in regulatory and legislative actions, but in the end, a more proactive stance by consumers may trump additional rule-making.
“I’m sure that policymakers will look at these numbers and say there’s something we have to do to fix this,” Rasmussen said. “But most voters believe that actually being more careful about sharing their information is more effective than passing new laws.”
Converse believes Utah’s burgeoning tech sector companies already have an edge over mega-tech operations when it comes to trust issues, and even more so following conditions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed more business activity to local endeavors.
“Our companies are very invested when it comes to protecting their own consumers,” Converse said. “Mistrust is running high in so many areas right now and one of the outcomes of the pandemic is … we’ve all learned to live our lives less through big, impersonal tech companies and more through our families and the businesses our neighbors and friends are running.”
And Koopman hopes data that further defines how wide the gaps are between the voting public and policymakers will serve is a catalyst for everyone to step back from the lines of division and mutually seek common ground.
“You should look beyond your particular partisan group and try to understand why there is such disagreement,” Koopman said. “The stark difference in the answers between Democrats and Republicans … should be cause to seek out those who have a different point of view and learn why.”