The spiral of silence in social media: If real it undermines the value of these media

September 9, 2014
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SPIRAL OF SILENCE: Pew found that social media users are becoming more hesitant to share beliefs online.


If you are a big follower of social media, as I am, you would think that digital pathways provide an enormous opportunity for citizens to engage in public dialogue on policy, politics, and religion. But a new study by PewResearch suggests that citizens are actually less likely to share their political and religious views in social media than they are in the real world, particularly if they feel their opinion isn’t widely shared by the world in general. The finding supports the phenomenon called the spiral of silence, which has long been documented to exist outside the internet.

Now, Pew has uncovered that counter-intuitively, the effect is even more pronounced in social media. Their experiment chose to test the willingness of social media users to comment on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. Pew selected the issue because Americans are widely divided on it — evenly believing that leaks are good for the political process but also bad in that they threaten American security. A recent blog post I wrote shared my own conflict on the issue and even after reading Glenn Greenwald and others on the topic, I had to turn to a body language expert to dissect a Snowden TV performance to determine if he is a patriot or a parasite.

Pew found that, surprisingly, people were less willing to discuss the Snowden case in social media than in person. In fact, 86 percent of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms, according to Pew. Even more disconcerting, the study found that social media did not provide an alternative platform for people to discuss their view on NSA spying, because people are less likely to share if they feel that the audience does not agree with their views.  And in the case of Edward Snowden, audiences are divided nearly down the middle. So there’s no way to know the majority opinion of any given audience.

In many ways, the findings surprised me. Perhaps my sample is biased, but my social platforms are filled with dissenting comments to the majority opinion. Or are they? After reading Pew, I studied social commentators in my own networks who appear willing to fly in the face of the majority opinion. What I learned is that most of these individuals had simply built networks of people who agree with their opinion so they feel comfortable expressing themselves, an echo chamber of sorts.

Rather it takes a real degree of courage to go before the majority and share an oppositional opinion. Something that Pew found we are surprisingly more likely to do in person than on social networks. In that regard, the report bursts a bubble of sorts by destroying the assumption that social media is more open and accepting of dissent. It’s not. And we all self-edit accordingly.

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