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What Lies Beneath Social Media Users' Self-Censoring Ways

What Lies Beneath Social Media Users' Self-Censoring Ways

A new Pew study appears to have drawn the conclusion that the people who refrain from discussing controversial topics with their social media friends are censoring themselves for fear of being ostracized or ridiculed. Maybe the "spiral of silence" has a simpler explanation: Some people don't enjoy engaging in heated arguments that are extremely unlikely to change anyone's mind.

By Richard Adhikari
09/02/14 12:50 PM PT

People have been reluctant to discuss whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations about the United States National Security Agency's surveillance activities in social media, the Pew Center Internet Project reported last week.

Only 42 percent of the 1,800 adults interviewed by the center were willing to post their views on the topic on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, although 82 percent were willing to discuss it face to face with others.

A mere 0.3 percent of the 14 percent of respondents who were unwilling to discuss the issue in person with others were willing to post about it on social media.

Respondents were more willing to discuss the issue, either online or in person, with others of the same opinion.

government surveillance survey

The survey focused on Snowden's revelations because other surveys conducted by Pew at the time indicated Americans were divided over the issue.

Its results suggest that a so-called spiral of silence may apply in social media settings as well as offline. That is, people who hold minority opinions often will censor themselves to avoid ostracism or ridicule.

"I don't lend that much credibility to these results," Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld. "If someone has a strong opinion, they'll say what they want where they want."

More on the Study's Findings

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

Snowden-NSA survey

People who thought their social media acquaintances disagreed with them on the Snowden issue were reluctant to state their views both online and face-to-face. That finding could suggest the spiral of silence spills over from online contexts to in-person contexts, according to Pew.

Or, it could mean that social media users have a broad awareness of their networks that might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned in to the opinions of those around them.

The Fires of Social Media

"Many are shy about being flamed by their followers or being unfollowed, so they play it safe," suggested Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "Social media does attract a lot of people who go with the flow, [and] folks that constantly fight it are eventually called trolls and blocked."

Taking an aggressive position on topics like the Snowden revelations "is very risky, and the experienced bloggers tend to avoid those risks," Enderle told TechNewsWorld. "There are old bloggers, there are bold bloggers, but there are few old bold bloggers."

I Know Thy Works and Thy Labor

Further, the Snowden revelations topic "is too clouded on both sides, with no clear lines, making it difficult to want to discuss," Enderle pointed out.

Indeed, the NSA initially had claimed only to be collecting metadata without recording the content of calls or emails, but it later was shown to have misrepresented the situation, and "in reaction to these additional revelations, people may have adjusted their use of social media and their willingness to discuss a range of topics," Pew noted.

Other Possible Reasons for Caution

Possible disapproval from employers may have impacted online discussions of the Snowden issue. Some large corporations dissuade employees from discussing controversial topics on the Web.

Still, Pew's findings don't mean open political discourse is dead.

"The other side of this issue is that social media played a big part in the Arab Spring revolution," McGregor pointed out.

Also, younger people are "not concerned about privacy or security," he observed, and are more willing to discuss controversial issues openly.


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.


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