Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Based in the city of Umeå in Northern Sweden, P. O. Ågren is an interesting thinker who often writes interesting thoughtpieces.  In a recent op-ed explains how social media leads to an increased self-censorship. In this piece he is discussing the PEW report Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Naturally he writes in Swedish but I wanted to take part of the argument and present it here. This is a translation but it isn’t my goal to make it a great translation – for this I apologize in advance. My goal is to capture the idea.

Social Media users tend to have a good idea about which opinions their friends and followers have. It has been shown that the user who holds an opinion that clearly differs from that of his friends and followers tends not to put forward or discuss these ideas.

The more people who disagree with me, the higher the chance that I will censor myself in social media.

The study goes further and shows that this attitude spills over into other arenas and affects our desire to discuss topics outside the web (for example at work or other places). Both Facebook and Twitter users are reluctant to discuss a controversial questions offline if they know that many of their online followers and friends hold a contrary opinion.

The overall results of the study point to the theory of the “the spiral of silence“, a term from the 70s, which entails that we are unwilling to express our opinions if we already believe (or know) that we are in a minority.

The study shows that the spiral of silence is identifiable online, and that it may also lead to an increased self-censorship offline.

A conclusion that may be drawn from this study is that social media does not have good preconditions to contributing to a deliberative democracy. Social technology which restrain rather than promote discussions on politics and society do not lead to an increased democratic participation.

I found several parts of this text interesting and while I have no real beef with the general thrust of the arguments I have questions.

The first question refers to the understanding that we are aware of the opinions of our friends and followers. On one level I would readily agree with this, but at the same time I have to ask: do we really? A couple of points on this: (1) this idea builds on the idea that social media is… well… social. Most interactions on social media are (obviously in my limited experience) not that social. We lurk, we peek, we look at links but do we really discuss?

This is also enhanced by the filter bubble effect (Pariser) where algorithms present us with the “right” information and the “right” friends. The differences are eradicated. When our online friends and followers get to a certain point (Dunbar number, maybe?) people (and opinions) disappear in the crowd.

Then there is the issue of self-censorship. Again I have no issue with the spiral of silence theory. But I think something is missing. For me, it isn’t enough to talk about people self-censoring online because they are in a minority online. There needs to be another element. What’s missing is power.

The online world is filled with countless examples of people behaving badly. People online being openly racist, misogynistic, antagonistic, impolite and downright threatening. Many of these examples are not voices from behind a veil of anonymity but openly and frighteningly from easily discoverable identities. Some are trolls, doing it for the lulz, but many are sincerely and openly assholes.

Of course the theory of groupthink is a good one. We shut up for fear of making waves. This self-censorship is worrisome because, as PO argues, it does little to support the development of democracy. When we recognize we must be far less optimistic about the role that technology (in particular social media) plays in the political debate.

However, the self-censorship in the spiral of silence theory may have been a trait among users before social media. Added to this is the problem of power relationships. If we fear social, economic, political or other reprisals censorship may be a virtue. This is obviously the same as saying the cowardice is a virtue. But don’t lets forget the Steven Salaita affair. Would you tweet openly in a similar position today?

Those who can be hurt avoid being punished, those who feel impervious tweet to an obnoxious degree. The former isn’t cowardice and the latter isn’t bravery.

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