Data Privacy and Security

Social Media and the 'Spiral of Silence'?

This week Pew Research released a fascinating psychological study on social media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’. This theory suggests that people will not “speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared.” This new research confirmed this tendency is also true on social media.

Based on 1,801 US adults’ willingness to share their views on the Edward Snowden revelations, it threw out four core findings. Firstly, people were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story on social media than they were in person. Secondly, social media did not provide an alternate platform for those who were not willing to discuss the story. Thirdly, both online and offline, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. Fourthly, Facebook and Twitter users emerged as less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. For example the average Facebook user – who used the site a few times a day – was half as likely as others to share their views with friends in a restaurant.

The full report [PDF] was an in-depth 44-page multi-authored piece, and the summary weighed in at 2,500 words and provided researchers’ opinion of why this might be the case. Views ranged from fear of arguments or disappointing friends, to the worry that the links will persist and be discovered later. The authors also speculated as to whether social media users have had previous experience of minority opinions generating bullying, ostracism or other negative outcomes.

Personally, I think the way people use social media is also important. Twitter and Facebook are very different animals. Celebrity stalkers aside, a large majority of long-term Twitter users view it as a professional tool to share information that pertains to their job. This makes it very popular with journalists and PRs who spam out their own stories - it also means that people do not shove up information willy-nilly. They tend to bang the same drum… and it is either a passion or their work.

Facebook on the other hand is a far more personal platform and many users fall into one of three categories: people who update spasmodically as a newswire for their own lives. People who like to have a laugh and share ongoing stories for others’ amusement. And the obvious braggers who are mostly keen to prove their lives are absolutely wonderful… at whatever frequency.

In a lot of ways this research confirms the obvious. It states that people are more likely to speak up if they are confident in what they know, have strong opinions and are very interested. Perhaps above all these findings simply show that many people are not any of the above?

I would be extremely interested to see this study replicated in other European markets - Germany, France and Sweden would make nice comparisons. Of course, many individuals across South East Asia use platforms to galvanise activists who are incensed by negative social issues. And this is common in many parts of the world. Yet these countries are very different from the US and other parts of the West.

In the West free speech is the norm. The Snowden revelations may have caused a stir because they went against the ideals of what countries like the US and UK are meant to stand for. Yet in a world where anything goes, political apathy reigns supreme. If you raise your head above the pulpit in some places, the physical dangers to you are extreme… but the rewards could also be immense for society at large.

In the US neither is likely to be true. In fact banging on about Snowden on a platform like Facebook, where people mostly want to share pictures of their kids and latest holiday, may achieve nothing but boring people senseless.

If individuals really, really care and know what they’re talking about, of course they use these platforms but this is normally for distribution - spamming in fact, in an attempt to educate others. However, for the most part, it is not the forum. Facebook especially is no a platform for conceptual or ideological debate, which, for all its attention grabbing headlines is what the Snowden-NSA revelations amount to.

Social media platforms are very much people’s public face in the West. This information is usually available through a Google search anyway. But truth be told, if someone cares strongly about something, they probably will join a group or talk to someone who agrees with them – this is not because they’re scared of the opinions of their friends, but because they wouldn’t want to be a bore.

And frankly what kind of conversation are you going to get out of people who aren’t interested? Unless, of course, you’re hoping to educate them… in which case you have free reign to really let rip.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect



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