How social media silences debate

“Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends … The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.”

I’ve been thinking about this study a lot. I think this is mostly true, though I’m not sure that government surveillance example was the best case to test “the spiral of silence.” I’d be more curious about the protests in Ferguson and race relations in the U.S. and social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, etc.

Aside from the actual study, I think the findings largely comport with the fact that social media, at least in terms of Facebook and Twitter, are actually not that great for debate in the first place (I’d argue that blogging and very, very few comment sections can be more civilized and productive) and that many people don’t feel the need to express their opinions in a pseudo-public place (versus in-person) anyway for any multitude of reasons, but most likely for employment purposes.

The researchers set out to investigate the effect of the Internet on the so-called spiral of silence, a theory that people are less likely to express their views if they believe they differ from those of their friends, family and colleagues. The Internet, many people thought, would do away with that notion because it connects more heterogeneous people and gives even minority voices a bullhorn.


Instead, the researchers found, the Internet reflects the offline world, where people have always gravitated toward like-minded friends and shied away from expressing divergent opinions.
(There is a reason for the old rule to avoid religion or politics at the dinner table.)

And in some ways, the Internet has deepened that divide. It makes it easy for people to read only news and opinions from people they agree with. In many cases, people don’t even make that choice for themselves.

(Emphasis is mine.) The in-person facet and the platforms’ algorithms are the most interesting to me than the need or willingness to express divergent opinions though. I think a lot about how people get their news THEN interact and process that information with those they know, whether it’s friends, family, or colleagues.

via New York Times / Pew Research

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