Although the sharing-friendly interface of Twitter or Facebook seems to foster open debate, appearances may be deceiving. A new survey suggests that social media may in fact discourage people from expressing their opinions on controversial issues, even when they are offline.
The study by the Pew Research Center looked at responses to a recent, controversial issue in the news: Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance. It found that 86 percent of the 1,801 adults surveyed said they would be willing to discuss their views about the case in person, for example at a public meeting or at a restaurant with friends. However, only 42 percent said they would post about it on online platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.
Facebook and Twitter users weren't just holding their tongues online; they were also less likely to discuss the issue with friends or acquaintances in person. The study found that the typical Facebook user, who's on the site several times a day, was half as likely to discuss the issue in public as a non-Facebook user. And a person who uses Twitter a few times a day was one-quarter as likely to share opinions in the workplace as a person who does not use Twitter at all.
The only exception to this finding was when a person felt confident that their Facebook followers agreed with their opinion; in that case they were twice as likely to join a site discussion of the issue.
The researchers described this phenomenon using the term "spiral of silence," which means that most social media users will likely avoid discussing controversial issues unless they're sure others agree with them. They say this explains why many people are more comfortable posting about ice-bucket challenges than about politics.
"People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion," said Keith Hampton, a communications professor at Rutgers University who helped conduct the study. "And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere."
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, said that social media may actually sensitize people to different opinions.
"Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts," he said. "This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend."
While many people might say that staying away from political debates on Facebook is a matter of tact, Hampton warns that a person's fear of offending someone on social media hampers the healthy exchange of ideas.
"A society where people aren't able to share their opinions openly and gain from understanding alternative perspectives is a polarized society," he said.
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