Pew Study reveals Social Media Creates a “Spiral of Silence”

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Do people tend to speak up more about issues facing our society because of social media? Does everyone’s voice get heard? If you were to look at any Facebook feed, you’d probably say it’s a great tool for discussing issues and stating opinions. It’s given many people a voice, and the ability to craft a thought and publicize it.

But a recent study by Pew Research points to something else – namely, that people have quite the opposite reaction when it comes to social media: they are afraid to share their views. There is a tendency of people not to 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 tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”

Social media has only deepened this tendency, at least as Pew researched human behavior pre-Internet compared to what is taking place now. Facebook and Twitter especially seem to advocate for those who hold minority opinions to use their platforms to voice them, but many users haven’t.

Pew conducted a survey of 1,801 adults, focusing on one important public issue that most Americans had heard about: the Edward Snowden revelation about government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records. Pew says they chose this issue because Americans were divided about the issue - whether Snowden’s leaks to the media were justified or whether the surveillance policy itself was a good or bad idea.

The research firm surveyed people’s opinions about the leaks, their willingness to talk about the revelations in either in-person or online settings, and their perceptions of the views of other people, both online and offline.

It turns out, people were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story over social media than they were in person, with 86% willing to discuss in person versus only 42% of Facebook and Twitter users who were willing to post about it on those platforms. In addition, in both personal and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For example, those who felt their co-workers agreed with them were about three times more likely to say they’d join a workplace conversation about the Snowden situation.

It is similar with Facebook users – those who thought their friends would agree with them were also more likely to post their opinion about the issue, but those who weren’t sure were less likely. Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in person with friends, say over dinner, if they felt that their Facebook friends didn’t agree with them.

Many people might decide that sharing political viewpoints over Facebook or Twitter might alienate friends or colleagues. This is also a reason why people refrain from sharing information that is too personal. Regardless, the Pew study shows that Americans may be a lot less willing than we assumed to share their true feelings over social media.