Facebook to Pew: Social Doesn’t Stifle Debate, It Just Doesn’t Facilitate

A recent Pew study suggests that social media users are wary of discussing controversial topics -- Facebook says it's all about context and framing.

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The popular myth is that the Internet is a democratizing force — having greater access to human knowledge should make people better informed about the world they live in. Now we’re seeing that the social parts of the Internet actually limit what people say and what they think. New data from Pew Research says there may be a “spiral of silence,” but Facebook isn’t so sure.

Pew surveyed 1,801 adults about the divisive issue of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA files. This topic was chosen precisely because of its divisiveness. Pew found several points of interest in their answers.

The broad finding is that social networks don’t necessarily provide an outlet for alternative viewpoints. Quite the contrary: people only want to post about “safe” topics within their friend group. And even if an online friend group agrees with a viewpoint, social media users are less likely to talk about the controversial issues offline than members of the general populace.

The “spiral of silence” still isn’t well understood, but it seems that users fear being ostracized. The silence could be a symptom of political echo chambers, and users feel they must be in lock-step with their peer group.

Facebook has responded to Pew’s data, stating that things may not be so damning. Winter Mason, a computational social scientist at Facebook, wrote: “The study doesn’t actually say that social media makes people more unwilling to engage in public debate — simply that it doesn’t make them any more willing.”

Mason also disagrees with how the contexts were framed:

If people think that the government’s spying on them online, it doesn’t seem that surprising that people might not want to debate the issue online. So the topic of conversation actually matters here. If the topic was family dysfunction, you’d probably also see more reluctance to talk about the issue at a family dinner than on Facebook.

Based on the Pew’s data, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that social networks stifle debate. But given complicating factors, such as the number of users that connect with family on Facebook and the desire to keep the peace in public and in private, it’s less clear that there’s direct causation. Filter bubbles exist, and it seems that Pew’s data has reinforced that fact.