How Social Media Silences Debate

Our assignment for the coming week is for students to do a “social media audit” of themselves. It’s designed to support our Course Goal #3: Develop skills for reflection, growth and professional networking. That goal encourages students to hone their social media skills and build a professional learning network. (PLN)

So this just released study by the Pew Research Center should add to our upcoming class discussion. Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’ finds that when using the controversial Snowden-NSA case as a prompt:

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, … those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world. NY Times

Ironically, this report has sparked a lively discussion on Twitter: follow the hashtag #spiralofsilence.

[polldaddy poll=8270766]

If the topic of the government surveillance programs came up in these settings, how willing would you be to join in the conversation?

6 thoughts on “How Social Media Silences Debate”

  1. What an interesting study. It is great to attach numbers to a topic that can often stick in the anecdotal. Regarding the poll above, I voted “no” because of the final about section of the report, where the authors said:

    “This report explores the degree to which social media affects a long-established human attribute—that those who think they hold minority opinions often self-censor, failing to speak out for fear of ostracism or ridicule. It is called the “spiral of silence.”

    This statement seems to tell me that though the figures for social media and debate are interesting, they do not necessarily reflect what actually happens in human relationship. I think the question could be better stated as “Does social media help promote debate?” This study seems to reveal to me that social media is used as entertainment by the masses. Like television or movies. Does watching television after work stifle debate? The “long-established human attribute” of failing to speak out is prevalent outside of social media, so I think it is hard to blame social media for disproportionally contributing to a spiral of silence.

    1. Lots to think about here. And add to that all the people who post links to articles they haven’t actually read. Are they simply posting articles to create an impression among their friends?

  2. Social media definitely lends itself to debate. Look at pretty much any youtube comment thread to see a series of dumb arguments. One point that I will concede is how easy it is to block someone’s comments from showing up in your facebook newsfeed. I’m sure a lot of people block opinionated friends’ comments. One thing that struck me about the study is how less likely a SM user is to engage in opinionated discussion in the physical-world. I wonder if it’s more comfortable to “hide” behind your screen. It makes me think of Gilligan, where moral opinions are more contextualized for some, centering more on the effects that their actions will have on their interpersonal relationships.

    1. “How easy it is to block someone’s comments” … I confess to “turning off” some SM friends off. Not so much because I disagree with them, but because they insist on posting kitten videos and latte updates.

      Worse yet are some of the more “notable” bloggers / consultants who must rely on keyword-searching “bots” to autopost relentless pablum to Twitter. Do they thing that to keep that high “followers count” they need to have non-stop Tweets. Doesn’t say much for what they think of their audiences. Unfortunately, they tip the signal / noise ratio so far that I unfollow them. Too bad … many are very thoughtful in person, but now slaves to feeding the SM beast. “I … Must … Tweet.”

  3. A very interesting article. I admit I too struggle with the phrasing of the question “Does Social Media Stifle Debate?” My first impulse is to vote no of course it doesn’t, given how many different debates I have witnessed on topics online, and how social media has played a role in political movements such as the revolution(s) in Egypt etc, which many say may not have happened without it. However, I do feel I have sensed a shift in the way the ‘public’ views people who engage in debate in social media forums. I think engaging in debates online has begun to be perceived much more negatively in response to the many not so well informed participants in these conversations. In my personal experience, I often find myself sharing the minority opinion on hot topics but I do not voice my opinion on social media because I do not want to be ‘grouped’ alongside other who are participating in unproductive ways.

    Anyway, an interesting article that has motivated introspection on my part!

  4. Like Kari, I have an issue with the question, “Does social media stifle debate?” Social media may have created a new space that could potentially serve as a venue for discussion and debate, but it is still a public “place” and that same human tendency to keep mum about potentially divisive topics still applies. If anything, the findings adds support to the idea that the virtual world has become a “third place” (as defined by Ray Oldenburg) and one could expect one’s behavior in a public house house to be similar to one’s behavior in an online setting. Whether I voice the unpopular belief that “kittens are ugly”* at my local coffee shop or on my Facebook page, there will be real world social ramifications for voicing this view in a public setting, and I may learn to keep my mouth shut the next time I hold an unpopular belief.

    * I do not actually believe that kittens are ugly. Please don’t ostracize me.

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