The Spiral Of Silence

by Sue Halpern

Pew Silence

When I read this Pew report last week, about how social media does not foster meaningful dialog about public policy among people who might not share one’s own view, I can’t say that I was surprised. Researchers, interested in finding out if Facebook and Twitter encouraged people to engage with each other on divisive current events, interviewed slightly less than 2000 Americans, asking them if they would share their views about Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations with their social media “friends.” Apparently, in the pre-Internet olden days, people were shy about voicing an opinion on controversial topics when they weren’t sure of the viewpoint of their listeners. This reticence was deemed “the spiral of silence.” Might social media turn that around?

The survey reported in this report sought people’s opinions about the Snowden leaks, their willingness to talk about the revelations in various in-person and online settings, and their perceptions of the views of those around them in a variety of online and off-line contexts. This survey’s findings produced several major insights:

People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. 86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.

Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.

In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation.

That people behave on social media much the same that they do in other parts of their lives probably should not surprise us. Social media is a platform; most likely it doesn’t change our instinctive behaviors when a real name is put to an opinion. (The kinds of behaviors encouraged by social media anonymity is another thing altogether.)

Writing about the Pew study, Jamie Condliffe observes:

Our social networks are increasingly powered by algorithms designed to feed us news that aligns with what we want to see and hear. It’s only natural that the upshot of that kind of tuned information delivery would make us worry about sharing opinions that were out of step.

It seems counter-intuitive–if we’re getting only what Facebook thinks we want to get based on everything they know about us, which is a lot, shouldn’t we assume we are always among friends? But it makes sense. We’re worried about losing friends, which is to say that we’re worried our number of friends will diminish.

What’s peculiar about the Pew study is how the questions were asked. Though the survey took place in the months after Snowden’s revelations, the subjects were asked will you and would you… not did you. Using the conditional to report on behavior that already might or might not have happened tends to make the whole exercise, well, an exercise.

It turns out, too, that the spiral of silence does not only extend to individuals. Take this week’s revelation about the NSA’s Google-like search engine that shares something on the order of 850 billion data points such as private emails obtained without a warrant from ordinary American citizens among numerous government agencies. This is a big deal for many reasons, not the least of which is that it may enable the FBI or the DEA to illegally obtain evidence and cover their tracks while so doing. Yet the mainstream media almost uniformly ignored the story. When I searched ICREACH today, only the online tech media had picked it up and run with it. Is it possible that the mainstream media is afraid of losing friends, too?