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Have Social Media Made Us More Afraid to Express Policy Opinions?

August 26, 2014

The “spiral of silence,” the tendency of people not to express their views on policy issues when they believe their opinions will be unpopular, has only deepened on the social media that some had hoped would become forums for freer expression and broader public discourse.

According to a recent survey from Pew Research, Americans are even less likely to state their views about policy issues online than in person.

In particular, the survey sought people’s opinions on Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) conducts widespread surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records, and their willingness to express those views.

While 86 percent of survey respondents said they were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, only 42 percent of those surveyed who use Facebook and Twitter were willing to post their views on the subject on those platforms.

Of the 14 percent who were unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person, only 0.3 percent were willing to post their opinions about the controversy on social media. In-person and online, people were more inclined to express their views if they thought their audience would agree with them, and more likely to censor themselves when they believed others would disagree with their views.

The traditional explanation for the spiral of silence has been that people choose not to disclose their minority opinions for fear of being ridiculed and losing their friends. Pew Research studies have found that people are reluctant to express potentially unpopular views online because their posts stay on the Internet indefinitely and can be found by prospective employers or others with high status.  — Greg Beaubien


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