Spiral of silence – or cone of confusion?
A recent study by researchers at Pew Research and Rutgers University has been making the rounds. According to much of the media coverage, the report reveals a dire truth - social media is stifling debate about public affairs and destroying the diversity of opinion in America today.
A closer inspection of the study, however, reveals that things might not be so dire after all.
Pew called a sample of people in the U.S. between August 7 and September 16, 2013, and asked them about their demographics, their Internet use, whether they had heard about the Snowden-NSA surveillance story and if so, how they heard about it, how interested and knowledgeable they were on the topic, and under what circumstances they would be willing to "join a discussion" about the topic on social media and in person.
First, the study doesn't actually say that social media makes people more unwilling to engage in public debate - simply that it doesn't make them any more willing. People are less willing to discuss an issue when they think the audience disagrees with them than when they think they agree, whether that audience is offline or online. The tendency to avoid information that disagrees with your viewpoint has been a known effect since before the Internet existed (selective exposure), and this study concludes that there is no evidence that people overcome this tendency.
So the Internet isn't a magic wand for human behavior. Shame.
Second, the study also found that 74% of people were willing to talk about the Snowden-NSA surveillance issue at a family dinner or at a restaurant with friends, while only 42% were willing to talk about the issue on Facebook. But if people think that the government's spying on them online, it doesn't seem that surprising that people might not want to debate the issue online. So the topic of conversation actually matters here. If the topic was family dysfunction, you'd probably also see more reluctance to talk about the issue at a family dinner than on Facebook.
One other conclusion of the report is that respondents who are typical users of Facebook are less likely to join discussions offline than those who don't use Facebook as much. A closer look at the results shows some odd findings here. While people who use Facebook might say they're less willing to "join a discussion" on the topic with friends at a restaurant, they're just as likely as non-Facebook users to talk about the issue at work or a family dinner. Twitter users are less likely to talk about it at work, but no less likely than non-Twitter users to talk about the issue with community members, friends at a restaurant, at a family dinner, or on Facebook.
Why are the contexts in which people are willing to talk about the issue different for Facebook and Twitter users? It seems that Pew's study says more about how different people discuss important matters (e.g. people who visit Facebook regularly versus those who don't), rather than the effects of Facebook or Twitter on how people talk about public issues. Clearly the story is far from the simple conclusion that social media stifles debate.
Finally, the report suggests that Facebook users are less willing to join the discussion because they are more aware of disagreement among their friends. But this begs the question: how are they aware of this disagreement if there is this spiral of silence? One possibility is that people are sharing their opinions on issues by doing things like sharing news stories and liking other people's statuses without joining a discussion directly. Silence should not be interpreted as suppression - it might just be that people want a less confrontational way of expressing their beliefs.
The topic of Pew's research is an important one and we should welcome efforts to look at the impact of technology on public debate. For now this study seems to raise more questions than answers. I look forward to a vigorous debate about this on Facebook.
Special thanks to Sean Taylor, Eytan Bakshy, Mike Develin and Dex Torricke-Barton.