News & Views
The spiral of social silence

The internet is full of people with opinions. But did you know that the majority will only speak their minds if they are confident nobody will disagree with them? While social media platforms aren’t usually associated with silence, this was the subject of a report published last week.

Keith Hampton, associate communications professor at Rutgers, conducted a study on the connection between social media and the ‘spiral of silence’. The ‘spiral of silence’ refers to the hesitation that people feel to express themselves, lest their opinion differ from that of their peers. This hesitation in turn leads to a lack of clear and informed dialogue on important issues, says Hampton: “People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation… People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy.”

The highly publicised, divisive story of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing was used for the purposes of this study. According to the results, if a Facebook user believes that their friends share their point of view on a subject, they are nearly twice as likely to join a conversation than they are if there is a possibility of disagreement.

“The internet reflects the offline world, where people have always gravitated toward like-minded friends and shied away from expressing divergent opinions,” says Claire Cain Miller at The New York Times. “In some ways, the internet has deepened that divide. It makes it easier for people to read only news and opinions from people they agree with.”

It makes sense that we would be drawn to people, accounts and comment threads which mirror our own perspectives; especially on the internet, where reprisal can be vicious. When it comes to controversial news stories, many daren’t voice an opinion which opposes the masses, for fear of angering the trolls, or perhaps even worse, being labelled a troll themselves.

Essentially, we’re herd animals, it seems. Hampton’s report reveals (within the microcosm of the Edward Snowden case, at least) that the ‘spiral of silence’ applies across Facebook, Twitter, your workplace conversations, family dinner, and socialising with friends. Wouldn’t it be interesting, then, if the next study were to determine the correlation between people’s perception of dominant opinion as it compares to the reality?

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