social media spiral of silence
August 27, 2014

Pew Poll Finds That Speaking Our Mind On Social Media Is Difficult For Some Due To ‘Spiral Of Silence’ Phenomenon

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

In our social circles - especially among family, friends and co-workers - we have a tendency to hold in our views on public policy issues. This is especially true when we think our own opinion isn't widely shared in those groups, according to pre-internet human behavior studies. Scientists call this phenomenon the "spiral of silence."

The hope for social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter was that they would provide such a wide variety of discussion forums that people holding minority views would feel free to express their opinions. Such freedom would broaden public discourse and add new perspectives to the discussions.

The Pew Internet Research Project studied the effect of social media on the spiral of science by conducting a survey of 1,801 adults in 2013. The survey was restricted to one public policy issue: Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records. Other Pew Research polls showed the division Americans were feeling over this issue, making it a timely question for the survey. These studies found that Americans were conflicted over both whether the information leaks were justified and whether the NSA policy itself was appropriate or not. One survey, for example, found that 44 percent say that the classified information leak harms the public interest, while 49 percent said it serves the public interest.

The current survey asked questions about people's opinions about the Snowden leaks, how willing they were to discuss the revelations in various in-person and online situations, and their perceptions of their peers' views both online and in-person.

The results showed the following key findings:

• More people were willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person than on social media — 86 percent were willing to discuss it in person, while only 42 percent of Facebook or Twitter users were willing to post about the issue.

• For those not willing to discuss the issue in person, social media did not provide an alternative platform. Only 0.3 percent of the 14 percent who were unwilling to discuss the issue face to face would post about it on social media.

• In both forums, people are more willing to share their views if they believe their audience agrees. People who believe their co-workers share their opinion were three times more likely to join a workplace conversation.

• Previous findings on the spiral of silence apply to social media platforms. Facebook users were twice as likely to join a conversation about the Snowden-NSA issue if they believed their followers agreed with them.

• Social media users were less likely to share their views in face to face settings, especially if they thought their social media followers disagreed with them. The average Facebook user is half as likely to share their opinion as other people.

Overall, but specifically in the Snowden case, the study found that social media had not provided new forums for those who would be otherwise caught in the spiral of silence. It also showed that social media users who felt their online followers disagreed with their views were less likely to voice those views in face-to-face situations. The researchers suggest that the spiral of silence might spill over from online to in-person contexts. They caution, however, that their data does not definitively demonstrate this causation. Another interpretation is that the heightened awareness social media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up.

There are areas of this phenomenon that the survey did not directly address. For example, it did not ask why people might remain silent if they felt that they held a minority opinion. Traditionally, researchers believe that the spiral of silence exists out of a fear of isolation. Previous Pew Research studies showed that a majority of social media users are mistaken about their network's beliefs, and are surprised when these beliefs are revealed. Other reasons for not sharing online might be a fear of the post persisting to be found later by prospective employers and people with higher status.

The researchers suggest that the spiral of silence affects the physical world because social media users might have witnessed minority opinion holders experiencing ostracism, ridicule or bullying online — creating a perceived risk of sharing.

The researchers investigated other factors that might influence whether or not people would speak out, even when they believed their view was in the minority. They found that the social and political climate in which people are willing to share their views depends on several other factors. These include their confidence in the knowledge they have on the subject, the intensity of their opinions, and their level of interest in the subject.


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