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The "Spiral Of Silence' And Social Networking Site Usage

Late last month, Pew Research released results of a study about the "spiral or silence," the tendency of people not to share their opinions to family, friends, coworkers, and classmates when they believe that their opinions are not widely shared. To study the "spiral of silence," Pew Research surveyed 1,801 adults about the disclosures by Edward Snowden about extensive government surveillance programs. Pew Research selected this topic because there was wide disagreement about it:

"... other surveys by the Pew Research Center at the time we were fielding this poll showed that Americans were divided over whether the NSA contractor’s leaks about surveillance were justified and whether the surveillance policy itself was a good or bad idea. For instance, Pew Research found in one survey that 44% say the release of classified information harms the public interest while 49% said it serves the public interest."

Pew Research found that:

"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, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms."

"Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media."

"In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation."

"Previous ‘spiral of silence’ findings as to people’s willingness to speak up in various settings also apply to social media users. Those who use Facebook were more willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them..."

"Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view..."

Why do people practice this spiral of silence? The researchers didn't ask survey participants directly why:

"The traditional view of the spiral of silence is that people choose not to speak out for fear of isolation. Other Pew Research studies have found that it is common for social media users to be mistaken about their friends’ beliefs and to be surprised once they discover their friends’ actual views via social media. Thus, it might be the case that people do not want to disclose their minority views for fear of disappointing their friends, getting into fruitless arguments, or losing them entirely. Some people may prefer not to share their views on social media because their posts persist and can be found later—perhaps by prospective employers or others with high status."

It seems that FOMO (e.g., Fear Of Missing Out) applies to a lot of discussions on social networking sites and apps. This presents all of us with another opportunity to practice these three strategies to fight FOMO. The spiral of silence practice seems both profoundly sad and a waste. A waste because we have these wonderful, powerful social networking tools that people have chosen not to fully utilize and/or are afraid to use completely. Sad because the practice of spiral of silence prevents open, honest, and direct dicussions; we fail to learn as much as we might from each other.

What are your opinions of this study? Of the spiral of silence? Of FOMO? Are people who practice the 'spiral of silence' cowards?


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