While it may seem like the Internets is a never-ending gauntlet of conflict and controversy, most social media users are actually less likely to express opinions, both online and in real life, according to a new poll of 1,800 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center. This appears to be part of a phenomenon Pew describes as the “spiral of silence,” in which people are less likely to talk about controversial issues unless they already know that their audience agrees.
In order to have a concrete example, Pew asked respondents about the Edward Snowden NSA leak case, including their willingness to discuss it in various forums, including a family dinner, at a restaurant with friends, at a community meeting, at work, on Facebook, and on Twitter (the latter two addressed only to people who already use these networks).
As one might expect, actual opinion over Snowden was more or less evenly divided, with 44% saying the leaks harmed the public interest, and 49% saying they served the public interest. What’s more interesting is the division in where people feel comfortable talking about it. Overall 86% of respondents said they were willing to discuss the case in at least one of the contexts listed above, but the number falls to just 43% for Facebook users willing to discuss it on Facebook, and 41% for Twitter users.
Even more interesting, typical Facebook users were also less than half as likely as non-Facebook users to be willing to discuss the Snowden case at a public meeting, and typical Twitter users were just one quarter as likely to be willing to discuss it at the workplace. By the same token, Facebook users were much more willing to discuss it if they know their audience (of fellow Facebook users) agreed.
Pew researchers speculated that frequent social media use may make people more sensitive to divergent opinions among their peers, in both online and offline contexts. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, stated: “Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts. This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend.”
Another collaborator, Keith Hampton, a communications professor at Rutgers University, stated: “People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion. And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere.”