Growth in social networks, patents 2003–2010 Mark Nowotarski

I like social media as much as anyone. But liking something shouldn’t blind one to its limitations and flaws. A recent study from Pew Research Center and Rutgers, focusing on the United States, looks at whether social media promote or stifle new viewpoints.

A survey of 1,801 American adults reported their willingness to discuss the Snowden leaks in person or online. The benchmark was an earlier Pew survey which showed that the American public was divided on the question, with 49% saying the leaks served the public interest and 44% saying they didn’t. So how did online discussion stack up against in person discussion, in terms of participants’ willingness to give their view?

In “How Social Media Silences Debate” (New York Times) Claire Cain Miller explains,

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.

It did not turn out that way. From the findings:

People were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person. 86% of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.

Well, by now, many people know that the Internet is not private.

Social media did not provide an alternative discussion platform for those who were not willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story. Of the 14% of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in person with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.

In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. For instance, at work, those who felt their coworkers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation.

Not clear why that last point should surprise anyone, but this next part is interesting:

Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings. This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view. For instance, the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion as other people.

Overall, the findings indicate that in the Snowden case, social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues.

Not sure how Pew computes that, actually.

Heavy Facebook and Twitter users are self-selected; they are not randomly assigned. Many people may be using online forums as a way of holding (or even hearing) an opinion in relative social safety, especially one that dissents from the opinions of a likely anticipated discussion group.

Is this really a spiral of silence or just a bit (well, okay, a megabyte) of privacy?

Miller offers,

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 a blogger for about a decade now. In my experience, here is a key difference between the Internet and conventional social life: People who would simply be dropped from social groups by implicit general consent can persist as angry, sometimes obscene, threatening, or defamatory, voices at blogs and Web sites until a moderator singlehandedly makes a decision to remove their privileges and posts.

Most people would rather not say anything than be that person’s target, so they remain silent. Thus, the Internet gives the impression of much fiercer polarization than, say, a neighbourhood discussion group would.

Thus, I don’t think the Internet polarizes society. It highlights polarities. Active moderation is not a cure-all, but it is a must. Once Joe Troll is “no longer with us,” as a moderator friend likes to put it, other voices do start to appear, slow and hesitant at first (in case there is another “Joe” lurking out there…).

Miller also worries that the Internet

… 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. Last week, Twitter said it would begin showing people tweets even from people they don’t follow if enough other people they follow favorite them. On Monday, Facebook said it would hide stories with certain types of headlines in the news feed.

Again, I don’t quite see it as she does. People whose jobs depend on a genetically engineered crop, for example, dismiss the views of urban green pressure groups. And Native Canadian hunting and fishing guides ignore the views of PETA lobbyists. This would be true no matter what Facebook or Twitter show them.  Facebook and Twitter rightly guess that they would sooner hear from and about friends and potential friends.

The reality is that, by adopting a certain lifestyle and viewpoint, we have all already made the choice Miller worries that we won’t get to make. Facebook and Twitter, like local newspapers and radio stations of decades past (and the town crier of old), offer the news they know the audience is interested in.

Of all the things that have changed over the years, that hasn’t.

Hat tip:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.


Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...