Self-Censorship Limits Discussion Of Snowden Issue In Social Media

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance have divided opinion among Americans, according to surveys. But a new study shows people have been less likely to share their views on the Snowden-NSA story in social media than in person.

Specifically, 86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, while only 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.

Further, social media didn’t provide an alternative forum for people unwilling to discuss the case. Of the 14% who wouldn’t talk about it in person, only 0.3% were willing to post about on social sites.

The findings come from a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, based on a survey of 1,801 U.S. shortly after Snowden first leaked details about the NSA collection of metadata from emails and phone calls in 2013.

Keith Hampton, associate professor at Rutgers University and an author of the report, noted that research prior to the Internet had shown that a “spiral of silence” descends when people fear their opinions are in the minority compared to those around them.

“Some had hoped that social media might provide new outlets that encourage more discussion and the exchange of a wider range of opinions. But we see the opposite — a spiral of silence exists online, too, stated Hampton.

The research also showed that in both personal and online settings, people were more likely to share their opinions if they thought their audience agreed with them. For example, 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.

Regarding Facebook, if someone felt that people in their 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.

But Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to share their opinions in face-to-face situations. The average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they’d be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. Similarly, the typical Twitter user was a quarter as likely to discuss the Snowden case in the workplace than someone who doesn’t use Twitter.

Other Pew Research Center polls have indicated Americans are split over whether the NSA contractor's leaks about surveillance were justified and whether the surveillance policy itself was legitimate or not.

What about concern with government monitoring as a cause for self-censoring in social media? In an interview, Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet Project, pointed out that that work on the study was completed before Snowden made subsequent disclosures suggesting Western intelligence agencies monitored and manipulated the content of online discussion and the NSA recorded the content of foreign phone calls.

“Future research may provide insight into whether Americans have become more or less willing to discuss specific issues on-and offline as a result of government surveillance programs,”said Rainie. “While this study focused on the Snowden-NSA revelations, we suspect that Americans use social media in similar ways to discuss and get news about other political issues.”

The Pew survey was conducted between August 7 and Sept. 13, 2013, in English and Spanish, and by landline phones and cell phones. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. Some 1,076 (out of 1,801) respondents were users of social networking sites and the margin of error for that subgroup is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

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