Has Social Media Prompted Civic Engagement or Emphasized the “Spiral of Silence?”

By: Jessica Murray

Everyone has an opinion.  Everyone has a stake in some political stance or another, everyone feels passionate about some social happenings and apathetic about others.  This has been the case since people gathered around ancient Greek philosophers, since the idea of democracy dawned on civilizations and since the discovery of newspapers.  Now, we see these passions and opinions (or lack thereof) on a newer and more conversational stage—social media. 

Twitter, January 20, 2019: CNN Post

Social media continues to change how people communicate their ideas and their means for doing so.  The introduction of newspaper and TV prompted thought and consideration in a way that only allowed for fast, one-way communication.   Social media changed the game by allowing people to voice these thoughts and considerations in a much more visible and further-reaching format.  At the outset, it appears that people are much more comfortable voicing their opinions and stances through their social media platforms, but is that really the case?

Admittedly, I am new to Twitter however I am a well-versed vet on Instagram and Facebook.  I still don’t understand Tumblr and I’m almost certain Pinterest exists solely for cute things. That being said, I’ve seen unanticipated levels of intense social and political discussion both on Twitter and Facebook.  I’ve read full-blown arguments explode in comment sections and debates erupt because of the passive agreement a retweet can suggest.  My mother is absolutely one of the louder voices.  Likely worst of all, I’ve seen the direct sharing of completely false information simply because people have access to it (God forbid I mention #FakeNews).  The interesting question, however, is if social media actually has opened up these conversations or if we’re just so purposefully directed towards them that it just appears that way because #trending. 

While it’s highly likely that social media platforms have indeed opened up controversial conversations for some, a group of researchers at the Pew Research Center found in a study of 1,801 adults that “not only were social media sites not an alternative forum for discussion, social media users were less willing to share their opinions in face-to-face settings.”  The researchers also found that most people would be more willing to share their views and opinions online and face-to-face if they knew that their audience shared the same viewpoints.  Conversely, the Pew Research Center mentions in their Activism in the Social Media Age report that Americans are increasingly turning to social media platforms as a primary source of news and information.  It’s no surprise that with this particular trend, increasing political debate online would follow.

The Pew Research Institute explains that “the traditional view of the spiral of silence is that people choose not to speak out for fear of isolation.”  Through my own personal experience with social media and research on the topic, I’m of the belief that social media situationally emphasizes the Spiral of Silence.  I know that there have certainly been instances in which I’ve withheld my personal views on social media because I don’t want any traceable statements I make to negatively effect me later on.  There have also been occasions in which I’ve felt liberated by social media conversations to share my beliefs. 

Leave a comment about your approach to social and political engagement online (and offline) down below!

Twitter: @jess__murr

Instagram: @j_murr16

This Article Has 4 Comments
  1. Ian Burleigh says:

    Jessica –

    I think you bring up some interesting points, particularly around the Pew research. The idea that people are more likely to speak up if they know their audience shares the same viewpoints certainly emphasizes the Spiral of Silence and may be part of the problem perpetuated by social media. While every viewpoint imaginable exists across social media, it is very easy for us as users to curate feeds that only include content we agree with. This can make us forget the differing viewpoints that do exist and, consequently, make it more difficult to engage in understanding, constructive conversation with those who don’t see eye-to-eye with us. Too often it seems that when people do branch out beyond their bubble and engage in conversation they are simply listening/scrolling through comment feeds to reply themselves, rather than to understand the viewpoint being presented. This desire to reply rather than understand pushes people further apart and is especially easy to do on social media.

    With that in mind, I strive to have social/political conversations in-person, where I feel it is much easier to listen, understand, and then reply. Points aren’t lost to context or condensed to fit character requirements and I feel a greater sense of accountability in these in-person conversations from all parties. Especially in the social and political landscape we live in today, I believe it is incredibly important to have these discussions, knowing that it is ok for people to disagree. To me, the importance lies in attempting to understand one-another, and while we can access all sorts of information via social media, I believe this understanding is much more likely to occur via in-person conversations.

    – Ian

    Twitter + IG @ianburleigh2

  2. Kierstyn Yardley says:

    Hi Jessica! I totally agree with the fact that I always see aggressive arguments on social media. Almost every time I go on Twitter or Facebook, I see an argument on a picture or a tweet that someone posted regarding people’s different opinions on a topic. Whenever I see a post, I avoid engaging because I don’t need random people knowing my views. I usually ignore any argument I see on social media. I think that the people who express their views online are the ones that wouldn’t speak up in person because they are hiding behind a screen instead of dealing with these issues in person. Whenever I’m with friends and an argument arises about something political, I do my best to either change the subject or leave the room.

  3. Nikki Heaston says:

    I feel like I’m the exact definition of the statement from the last paragraph: “the traditional view of the spiral of silence is that people choose not to speak out for fear of isolation.” I generally tend to be more reserved face-to-face and I definitely feel more reserved online. I’ve got a parent who is very outspoken about their political beliefs, beliefs I’d never have known without Facebook, but because our views are diametrically opposed I stay silent. It’s not that I fear this parent’s disapproval, but I fear the blowback of comments from friends and others who disagree. I have also read those full-blown arguments on Facebook that you mentioned and I’ve made an unspoken goal (until now) to not be someone who starts or engages in those arguments. I’d wager that few people actually change their opinions after arguing online and I don’t pretend to be able to say anything profound enough to get anyone to change.
    On the other hand I do use Facebook as a way to communicate my beliefs in causes and organizations for which I support. Organizations that I believe are doing something good for the world/society/some group of people who need it. It’s so easy to share a photo or one-sentence summary of how I feel and share it, and so far I haven’t had any backlash from that.

  4. Julianne Spencer says:

    Jessica — you make an interest point about social media providing a space for people to air their opinions (for better or for worse) with the idea that they wouldn’t necessarily say these opinions face-to-face. It sounds like you have a reliable, personal “filter” (for lack of a better word) to help you decide which personal view you’ like to post on social media and it’s certainly valuable for us all to know when it’s appropriate to state an opinion, and when it’s best to walk away from a situation. As we learned in class, anything we put out online is with us forever so it’s best to think about what we content we want out there… forever. Thanks for a great post!

    Twitter: @juliannespencer

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