The researchers set out to investigate the effect of the Internet on the so-called spiral of silence, a theory that people are less likely to express their views if they believe they differ from those of their friends, family and colleagues. The Internet, many people thought, would do away with that notion because it connects more heterogeneous people and gives even minority voices a bullhorn.
Instead, the researchers found, the Internet reflects the offline world, where people have always gravitated toward like-minded friends and shied away from expressing divergent opinions.
The New York Times has recently published a story that seemed to show social media silences debate. They're covering a recent study by Pew Research Center that looked at people's willingness to express their opinion about the Snowden revelations on Facebook or Twitter versus their willingness to do the same in person. It also looked at the difference between the willingness to express their opinion in personal settings if they used social media.
The results are disheartening. People were less willing to discuss the Snowden revelations online. Not only that, but regularly users of Facebook and Twitter were less likely to discuss their opinion in a personal setting than people who didn't use these services regularly.
After doing some research, the story appears to be more complex than the "Social media silences debate" headline offered by the New York Times. I’d like to focus on two things I uncovered in doing a bit of reading: social and anonymity.
When Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann originally published the theory of the spiral of silence, she recognized that the likelihood that someone spoke up correlated with a number of factors:
The willingness to discuss a controversial subject in public varies with sex, age, occupation, income, and residence. Men, younger persons, and the middle and upper classes are generally the most likely to speak out, and these differences hold for all other findings.
What interests me here is that the people who already have a fair amount of power are the more likely to speak out. People who may be marginalized for one reason or another are less likely to speak out.
Interestingly, the Pew study found that Facebook seems to reverse this trend to an extent.
There are some indications that Facebook may democratize discussion of political issues in at least some respects. Unlike many physical settings, on Facebook, those with fewer years of formal education were the most likely to speak up about an important political issue. When discussing political issues with friends at a restaurant, and family over dinner, it is those with the most education who are most willing to join in on a conversation. The opposite is true on Facebook. Those with the most years of formal education are more likely to fall silent when discussing the Snowden-NSA issue. Someone with only a high school diploma was 1.34 times less likely to be willing to join a conversation on Facebook about the government’s surveillance program when compared to someone with an undergraduate university degree. Similarly, on Facebook, women are as likely as men to feel comfortable discussing an important political issue. This contrasts with discussions at community meetings and at work where women tend to feel less comfortable discussing a political issue such as the government’s surveillance program.
This isn’t perfect Noelle-Neumann looked at sex, age, occupation, income and residents, but not education. But I find it interesting that in this case, Facebook seems to provide people who are less likely to speak out in some contexts a platform for expressing their opinion.
In 2009, Shelly A. Neill explored social media and GLBT people of color. She concluded:
The popularity of social media, due in part to the anonymity and self-directed disclosure it provides, ignites the GLBT person of color's willingness to speak out regardless of public opinion.
Anonymity seems important here. Facebook is decidedly not anonymous. Twitter can be, but that's not the way it's used by most people. It's interesting, though, that in 2009 Neill saw anonymity as key attribute of social media.
Cristina Malaspina looked at the spiral of silence in the context of the 2013 Italian elections and similarly found that anonymity was important for speaking out.
The findings of the study support the existing literature which investigates the spiral of silence in its online form, and suggest that the new conditions offered by online conversations facilitate the willingness of individuals to speak out, while seeming to decrease the fear of isolation, as a result of users’ perceived empowerment to speak out about politics on the Web and the anonymity enabled by specific types of channel.
However, it's worth noting that in Malaspina's study looked at different kinds of social media, including blogs, forums and social networks (Twitter and Facebook). She found that when it comes to political expression, not all social networks are created equal.
Not surprisingly, people seem to declare their support for a specific political leader on platforms where they are more likely to appear in an anonymous form (forums such as YouTube and Yahoo! Answers), rather than on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, where levels of anonymity are generally lower.
Again, anonymity is important here, and she explicitly draws a distinction between Facebook/Twitter and more anonymous types of social media, as do many of the people she interviewed for the study.
There are certainly issues with anonymous posting—YouTube comments are often not a nice place to spend your time. Nevertheless, anonymity seems to provide people with a way to express an opinion they might not otherwise express.