Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence is a concept proposed by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann.  She was a pioneer of public opinion polling and market research in Germany, and she proposed the Spiral of Silence concept in the mid-seventies.  Essentially it concerns the effect of peer pressure in groups.  Her thesis is that when we find ourselves in a group – perhaps otherwise compatible – where we hold a view not shared by most of the group, we feel reticent to express our conflicting view.  Just how we know our view is the minority one is not obvious, but I imagine we have all had this experience in some context or other.  The spiral effect begins when someone firmly proclaims the majority view and receives support confirming the leaning of the group.  As support for that view is mustered, we find it harder and harder to oppose it presumably out of fear of ridicule, rejection, or isolation.  Eventually the opposing viewpoint is not put forward at all.

Elisabeth may have had some experience of this.  Before the war she worked briefly for the Nazi newspaper Das Reich; certainly the Nazis knew all about silencing dissenting views.  An extreme version of the Spiral may have been one of the reasons that ordinary decent Germans largely did not speak out against the atrocities.
One thing is clear: the Spiral of Silence is not good for a democracy where robust debate should lead to informed decisions.  A huge step in the right direction was the advent and popularization of the internet. 

Now information could be instantly in the hands of the people and they could make their views public.  One only has to think of the Arab Spring as a case in point.  Here were people expressing views way off the status quo, supposedly majority, view.  Why else does China close down blog sites (including this one), and even youtube, on sensitive occasions such as the anniversary of Tiananmen Square?  In particular, social media sites are seen as fora where alternatives views can be expressed in a relatively unthreatening environment.

Well, maybe not.  Yesterday a New York Times article entitled How Social Media Silences Debate covered an interesting report from the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University – Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’.  To quote the NYT: “Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends…”  In other words, the Spiral affects groups on the internet too. 

I don’t suppose the conclusion is really very surprising when one thinks about it.  After all, social media are about generating online groups of friends, often with common interests and connections.  It seems reasonable that people would be just as concerned about the reactions of these virtual friends to their contrary views as they would be in other social groups.  Social media bullying and the like are well documented, and if anything easier for the perpetrators because they can hide behind some level of anonymity.  The report suggests that this is indeed the case.  More startling was the outcome that people who use social media regularly (multiple times a day) are actually more reluctant to express their views in the “real” world.

“The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different.  Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us,” was the NYT interpretation.

The authors, however, don’t go quite that far in their claims.  Their research was based on a reasonable sample of people (around 1800) interviewed about their social interactions around the topic of the Snowden disclosures.  This particular topic was chosen because the US is pretty divided on the issue so it is by no means obvious what the majority view would be in any particular group. (44% think it harms the public interest and 49% think it serves the public interest. Presumably the other 7% asked, ‘Who’s Edward Snowden?’)

This is hardly the religion-or-politics type of issue to be kept off the dinner table. Fully 86% of the respondents were willing to discuss the topic in a face to face gathering, yet less than half that number would be willing to do so on social media. Essentially none of the minority uncomfortable with the topic in group discussion would be willing to express a view on Facebook or Twitter.

Encouragingly, people were more likely to speak out in person or on a forum if they felt they knew a considerable amount about the subject, had a strong opinion, or high interest.  Nevertheless, the bottom line is that debate is no more encouraged by the internet – at least in the social media context – than in personal meetings.  Also the debates that did take place seem to have been rather low on content: only 15% of the respondents said they’d learned anything about the topic on Facebook whereas 58% had received information from broadcast media.

I could make a few comments about these outcomes in the context of my own views on social media, but I don’t think I will.  I think most of my friends would disagree with me...

Michael - Thursday


  1. I find that I ...uh... have to agree with you...

  2. This is very annoying! What, is everyone a sheep? Don't people learn critical thinking any more? Is education training people to have "group think?" And worse, to act on it by doing nothing about any social issues.

    It's very important to have principles in this world -- like opposing bigotry of all types, sexism, harm to other human beings through war or abuse or denying food, medical care, etc.

    I don't get it. Standing up for something and having principles is a good thing. After getting past adolescence where one wants to be just like one's friends or social clique, in adulthood, people should be able to differentiate their own beliefs and values from the "pack," and do the right thing. Or find other people with whom one agrees.

    And online on social media, why does anyone have to agree with other tweeters or Facebook friends? These folks probably don't even know each other.

    Schools should really teach people to have principles and stand up for them, and not blindly follow -- but to think for themselves and act on what they think is right.

  3. I agree with Kathy's point of view entirely, as usual. It seems to me, from this important and provocative post (THANK YOU, Michael!) that a lot of the general public is stuck in adolescence.

  4. I hesitate to say this, but I agree with all of you! Of course the point about the research was not to validate the Spiral, but to argue that social media is at least as constraining as face to face contact. Is this really surprising? Everything one posts is there for good, it's not anonymous (which would beg the question anyway), and your 'friends' are often not really personal friends. What is disturbing is that the reticence to expose one's opinions on Facebook or Twitter seems to carry over to the personal context.
    There is some comfort that people who know what they are talking about or have strong opinions ARE willing to speak out. The only downside is that I often find - listening to radio talk shows, for example - that the latter doesn't always correlate with the former!

  5. So we're banned in China, Stan. That's cool! And, personally, I believe folks muzzle themselves on social media than they in person for the very reason raised by Michael: Everything you write is out there FOREVER. At least in conversation there's a chance what you say isn't least until Google glasses come down in price. :)

  6. Thank you, Annamaria. That's very kind of you. What can I say? We, along with others on this blog, have a strong social conscience and know right from wrong and care about the human race and its future.

    I really don't understand why people have to follow others on social media when they don't even know each other. I know a lot of people are loud who have horrid views, and often those who have good principles are afraid to say their views. That is a sorry state of affairs.