The Arab Spring may have been a product of Facebook mobilization, but according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, that may be the only instance of strong political opinions emerging on social media. In fact, the survey shows that most Facebook and Twitter users refrain discussing from controversial topics, which may explain why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and Dubstep Cat videos are much more popular than articles about race and Michael Brown's shooting.
While the Internet appears to be chock full of strong opinions, it seems that what you're hearing are the voices of a vocal but small minority. For the most part, social media users are reluctant to alienate their Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
The connectivity that social media affords its users is generally taken with a hefty grain of salt — after all, you've worked so hard to build up your friend base, so why make them angry with a contentious post?
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, told the Associated Press, "Because [people] use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts." This in turn "might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend."
These results may come as a surprise to social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, who have long touted their platforms as a medium of open communication where ideas can be easily and quickly spread. Unfortunately, it seems that the opposite has happened, and social media users are descending into what is being called the "spiral of silence."
This term refers to the phenomenon in which people actively avoid sharing potentially controversial opinions unless they are sure that their audience will agree. Unfortunately, if this holds true across a large number of users (which is the assumption) the spiral of silence creates a one-dimensional and somewhat anti-progressive environment in social media in which users are either afraid of disagreement, or worse yet, mistakenly believe that everyone is always in agreement about everything.
So how exactly did the Pew Research Center come to their conclusions? According to their summary of findings, researchers, led by Keith Hampton of Rutgers University, conducted a survey of 1,801 adults. They asked participants for their opinions about Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks, choosing this particular issue because "other surveys...showed that Americans were divided over whether the NSA contractor’s leaks about surveillance were justified."
Their findings were quite surprising. Whereas 86 percent of respondents were willing to talk about the issue in person, less than half at 42 percent were willing to post or tweet about it.
However, if they knew that their Facebook or Twitter audience would agree with their views, they were twice as likely to post or tweet than if they were unsure. Moreover, the study found that "the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant," suggesting that even offline, social media users are careful to censor themselves.
In summation, Hampton told the Associated Press, "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," certainly a troubling finding.
Part of the problem also lies within social media itself — as USA Today points out, Facebook uses algorithms to promote stories based on your own likes and preferences. That means that if you shared an article about how racism in America, you were probably more likely to see articles about racism and Mike Brown. But the flip side is also true — if you're generally quiet about politics and current events and instead like to watch dogs skateboard (I do, too), then your feed is probably inundated by animal videos.
Given the vast reach that Facebook and Twitter have, it seems that the breadth of the audience is valued over the depth of the conversations that are held on these platforms. Said Hampton to the New York Times, "People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation."
And this presents a huge problem for our democracy, one that is meant to foster free and open debate and discussion. But it is not the government that is doing the censoring — rather, it seems that Americans are muting themselves for fear of offending their friends.
Without the cloak of anonymity to hide behind, it appears that social media users exercise more caution and restraint in their online interactions. This stands in stark contrast to the wealth of opinions (generally negative) displayed in comment sections under controversial articles (hi Jezebel), which then proceed to not get shared on social media.
The key difference between these commenters and other social media users, it seems, is ease of identification — if an opinion can't be traced back to you, why not share it? Interestingly enough, it may very well be the case that many of those who are all too willing to voice their criticisms on anonymous forums resort to silence when it comes to their personal pages.
But this fear of criticism is more than just cowardice — it is also stifling. As Hampton told the Associated Press, "A society where people aren't able to share their opinions openly and gain from understanding alternative perspectives is a polarized society." And that's one society that I certainly don't want to be part of.
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