According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, social media users with unpopular political opinions are less likely to speak out on social platforms and in real life. This is in contrast to the commonly-held belief that social networks give those with minority opinions a venue for their thoughts.
The report references the “spiral of silence,” a theory in communications that explains how people with unpopular opinions remain silent, fearing social isolation.
The survey questioned 1,801 Americans and focused on the polarizing issue of Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks about surveillance and privacy. Other Pew surveys showed that Americans were divided over the subject, which is why they chose this particular political issue to investigate.
According to the report:
People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. Previous ‘spiral of silence’ findings as to people’s willingness to speak up in various settings also apply to social media users. 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.
That last point is especially interesting, because it “suggests a spiral of silence might spill over from online contexts to in-person contexts.” The authors of the report speculated that social media users have seen others being cyberbullied for unpopular opinions, which would “increase the perceived risk of opinion sharing in other settings.”
Also surprising was the finding that people were unlikely to get news about the Snowden-NSA story from social media — more people turned to print news sources than social.
From the report:
Fifty-eight percent of all adults got at least some information about this topic from TV or radio. Thirty-four percent got at least some information from online sources other than social media. Thirty-one percent got at least some information from friends and family. Nineteen percent got at least some information from a print newspaper. Fifteen percent got at least some information while on Facebook. Three percent got at least some information from Twitter.
Twitter and Instagram users were over two times as likely as non-users to get news about the story from traditional media like TV and radio. The report found that Internet users in general were more likely to get information on the story from broadcast sources. “For the most part, social media users did not get their news through social media, they got it through television and radio.”
However, the report did find that the heaviest users of Facebook were more willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. While in real-life settings, those with higher levels of education are more likely to join the discussion, on Facebook, it was the opposite. Those who had only completed high school were more likely than those who had finished college to talk about government surveillance on the social network.
It’s also important to emphasize that the study only looked at the one political issue. There is evidence that social media can challenge the spiral of silence effect for issues like LGBT. Perhaps social media is more likely to serve as a platform for unpopular opinions that affect smaller online communities.