How Social Media Might Silence Debate

Edward Snowden, painted portrait" Thierry Ehrmann (CC BY 2.0)

According to this study, social media may have a negative impact on political debate. As the opening of the study notes, in the pre-internet era, there is a well documented phenomenon called “The Spiral of Silence” in which people tend not to voice opinions that differ from their friends and family. The intro also notes that:

Some social media creators and supporters have hoped that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might produce different enough discussion venues that those with minority views might feel freer to express their opinions, thus broadening public discourse and adding new perspectives to everyday discussion of political issues.

However, it turns out that this may not be the case. It seems that increased activity on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter also have a negative impact on people’s willingness to voice dissenting opinions that they think might be unpopular. It appears that this behavior extends to the offline world as well.

The study involved 1,800 adults, and they focused on getting participants to discuss Edward Snowden’s disclosures of government surveillance programs. Here is a summary of the findings, taken directly from the study.

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. If a person felt that people in their Facebook network agreed with their opinion about the Snowden-NSA issue, they were about twice as likely to join a discussion on Facebook about this issue.

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. For instance, the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion as other people.

What do you all think? Does this give us reason to think the social media participationg silences debate, as this New York Times discussion of the study suggests? What should we do in light of this?

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