In discussions of divisive issues, people are reluctant to pipe up if they think their opinion is an unpopular one. In the pre-Internet days, a political scientist dubbed this habit of staying mum the "spiral of silence."
To see if that tendency held online, the Pew Research Internet Project asked 1,801 adults whether they would post or discuss a controversial public issue online. What the project found was that social media outlets did not provide a safe space to express minority opinions, as some have hoped—our tendency to avoid confrontation spills over to our Tweets and status updates.
The Pew project focused on Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents that revealed extensive government surveillance of American’s phone records and emails. The survey found that 86 percent of people were willing to discuss the issue in person, but only 42 percent would be willing to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.
Social media wasn't an alternative for people keeping quiet in person, either: only 0.3 percent of those unwilling to have an in-person conversation were willing to post. In all settings, people were more willing to express their opinion if they thought their followers (or listeners) would agree with them.
On top of that, regular Facebook and Twitter users were less likely than others to say they would have an in-person discussion about the Snowden and the surveillance program.
“One possible explanation is that social media users are more aware of the diversity of opinions around them—especially on an issue where there is divided opinion,” Lee Rainie, director of Internet science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, told Masable.com.
Headlines touted these findings as evidence that social media silences debate. But the implications of the findings are a little more complicated than that. It doesn’t mean social media is useless during controversy.
The survey focused on only one issue, but found that people’s confidence in their knowledge and their level of interest affect whether they will speak up or stay silent. And there are a few examples that point to the power of social media and the Internet to give minority groups a voice or bring attention to a cause: the Arab spring, Ferguson, the Ice Bucket Challenge. In these cases, it may be that a minority opinion quickly drowns out the majority and spiral of silence spins the other way.