Contrary to what one might think, people do not air controversial topics more openly on social media than in face-to-face discussions.

Social Networks Not the Preferred Channel for Expressing Policy Views

The fear that others hold a different opinion sometimes stops people from expressing their views in public on a given topic. This happens quite often with public policy issues. Although social media creators had originally hoped that this reluctance to speak out would be relaxed on the social networks, the latest research indicates that Facebook and Twitter are not people’s favourite channels for discussing policy issues. A survey* commissioned by Washington DC-based think-tank the Pew Research Center reveals that people’s propensity to discuss matters openly in the digital sphere is not radically different from the physical world, and that what they call the ‘spiral of silence’ is a phenomenon in both worlds. The Pew report, entitled ‘Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’, reveals that on the whole people discuss topics more openly when they know their interlocutors are of the same opinion, and that a personal view is rarely aired just between two people, especially when there is a likelihood of disagreement.

Little online exchange of views on the Snowden affair

The survey was carried out shortly after the Snowden affair came to light. Among the 14% of respondents who did not envisage talking about the subject face-to-face, only 0.3% saw social media as an alternative channel they could use to express their views on the issues. While 40% of those polled said they would be happy to take part in a conversation about the US government surveillance programme if it came up during a family dinner, the same proportion said they would not join the debate if the topic were taken up on Twitter. In the same vein, only 42% said they were ready to post their views on the Snowden affair on social media, compared with 86% who would express an opinion in a fact-to-face situation. People’s reluctance to give an online view regarding government surveillance of communication networks may be self-explanatory, but the apparent general hesitation to post views online may come as something of a surprise.

Degree of knowledge and interest are a factor

The Pew-commissioned survey highlights other factors which may explain people’s greater or lesser propensity to discuss controversial issues. Among these factors is a person’s level of confidence in how much s/he knows about the subject. The more a person feels s/he knows about the ins and outs of an issue, the more willing s/he is to discuss it. The intensity of people’s opinions and their level of interest in the subject also play an important role.  Moreover, the survey results do not in any way detract from the fact that extreme political groups tend to air their views widely on the Web. The Internet does make it easier for such groups to share their opinions with a community of like-minded people.  However, these people would not start a discussion so readily with someone whose views they did not already know, much less with those whose known opinions differ from their own.

*In the form of telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a sample of 1,801 adult US Americans between 7 August and 16 September 2013.

By Lucie Frontière