Thursday, August 28, 2014

Social Media and the Reluctance to Speak Up

The New York Times reported this week that Pew Research and scholars at Rutgers University have published a study on the so-called "spiral of silence."  That phrase refers to the tendency people have to not discuss their political views in public because they fear a clash of opinion with close friends, work colleagues, etc.   Keith Hampton and his co-authors examined whether the "spiral of silence" applied in the world of social media.  In other words, does social media help stimulate debates about public policy issues?   They examined the behavior of 1,801 adults with regard to one major news story: National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's disclosures about surveillance programs in the United States.   The scholars discovered a discussion about this controversial public policy issue was less likely to occur via social media than in person.  Moreover, the individuals who were reluctant to discuss the issue in-person with others did not view social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook as better places to share their views. They also were reluctant to speak up via social media.  The people who do share their views tended to be those who have a strong belief that their friends and followers on social media are like-minded on these public policy issues.  Of course, the study only examined one public policy issue, but the findings should cause us to think about social media's effect on public debate.  To the extent that discussion occurs via these platforms, is it often simply a dialogue among like-minded people?  

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