“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
From The Walrus and The Carpenter by Lewis Carroll
We share the belief that the internet broadens public discourse and adds perspective to discussion of many topics and issues by offering the freedom to share opinions more or less anonymously about many subjects, including cabbages and kings. Through the give and take we can become more informed. A new study by Pew Research Center of what they call the “spiral of silence” refutes that belief. Pew found that Facebook and Twitter users avoid using the sites as outlets for discussion of political and controversial issues when they fear that followers will disagree with their views. The idea of the “spiral of silence” goes back to pre-internet studies of communication.
The issue in the new study was the Snowden-NSA revelations, which were fairly new at the time the survey of 1,801 people was conducted, when the general public still knew very little about the scope of the surveillance. Division of opinion on the issue was more or less even.
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, at a dinner with family or friends, a community meeting or at work, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post on those platforms.
Pew found that “people who thought their social media friends disagreed with them were less likely to discuss the issues in face-to-face gatherings, as well as online forums.” People were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them.
The reluctance to express opinions others may disagree with may follow from human need for and attunement to the approval of others, reading cues to see if others agree with them. Active social media users get more of these cues and be more aware of the extent of difference of opinion.
How well the findings can be extrapolated to other social issues, such as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, is another research questions.
There are other reasons people may be reluctant to share their views on an issue. I they may have seen posters who held minority opinions being ostracized, ridiculed and bullied online. Or they may fear that their posts will be found later, for example, by prospective employers.
There are aspects of the social and political climate in which people share opinions depends on several other things, such as their confidence in how much they know, the intensity of their opinions, and their level of interest.
A final consideration is that the internet has proven not broadening but polarizing, with people finding and using sites they agree with rather than seeking out and learning from opposing opinions.
There are many sensible reasons why people don’t share opinions, both on and off the internet. Yet it’s disappointing that the internet isn’t the tool which could broaden public discourse but doesn’t. I hope Pew will undertake more research to see if there are ways around this problem.