If social media users think their followers don’t share their opinion on the news, they are less likely to post those views on Facebook and Twitter, according to a new Pew Research Center report, released today. It showed Facebook and Twitter users posted less about Edward Snowden and his revelations of government surveillance if they felt their networks would disagree with their viewpoints, and were nearly twice as likely to share on Facebook if they felt their network agreed with them.
The authors connect these findings to the ‘spiral of silence,’ a phenomenon where people who think they hold a minority opinion don’t speak up for fear of social exclusion. “One of the possible theories [for this study] is that when people see diversity in opinion, they don’t want to challenge other people, or upset them, or risk losing a friendship,” said Keith Hampton of Rutgers University, one of the study’s authors, in a telephone interview. For the authors, the study implies that the long-documented suppression of minority opinion exists online just as in real life.
As every social media user becomes an amateur publisher, the Pew study also shows the consequence of depending on individuals to disseminate the news. Indeed, it shows 58 percent of their sample of 1,801 American adults got information about Snowden from TV or the radio while only 15 percent received it from Facebook and 3 percent from Twitter.
Further, the study found that while 86 percent of respondents wanted to discuss the Snowden story in real life, only 42 percent would post about it on social media. Here, the authors speculate that social networks increase awareness of different points of view, making users more hesitant to express their own.
That is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as Hampton said, the study suggests that there is a threat of self-censorship and groupthink online. “If we lived in a country where people were increasingly less and less likely to share their opinions on subjects, we would have an incredibly polarized populace that didn’t talk to each other,” he said.
On the other hand, the respondents, surveyed by telephone, were not asked why they were or weren’t posting about the news, and thus it’s unclear that they did so out of self censorship. Indeed, the other side of exposure to different points of view is that it can refine an opinion, helping users pop the potential online filter bubble. A hesitancy to share online could actually be a valuable restraint for someone who would otherwise have shot an unthinking opinion into the digital ether, safe in the knowledge their network of followers would agree with their views.
As news organizations struggle to stem the tide of needlessly offensive comments on their own websites, the question of whether more sharing, commenting, and expression of opinion online is always good is still open. When the web is saturated with opinions on the news, restraint and thoughtfulness—regardless of whether followers agree or not—matter too.