While social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, may spur participation in the political process, the sites have not become a platform for the discussion of people’s opinions on political issues, says Keith Hampton, associate professor at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information, whose research was published today by the Pew Research Center.
The “spiral of silence“ – a pattern in which individuals are reluctant to express opinions when they perceive that the majority does not support their views – “is alive on well on social media,” Hampton says. The theory, first described by the late communication scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, explains how some opinions become dominant as people who think their own points of view are in the minority fall silent for fear of social isolation.
For the study, Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence,’ Hampton and his team, including three Rutgers doctoral students, partnered with Pew Research to conduct a telephone survey of 1,801 American adults in 2013 about their reactions and exposure to news on revelations by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, about U.S. government surveillance activities. Eighty percent of the people in the survey were Internet users, and 89 percent had mobile phones. Among the Internet users, 71 percent used Facebook and 18 percent used Twitter.
When news broke in early 2013 that Snowden had disclosed thousands of classified documents to various news media outlets, the story led to immense news coverage. But social media networks were not a major source of information about Snowden and the NSA, according to the survey. Only 15 percent of Americans said they got information about the affair from Facebook and 3 percent cited Twitter. By contrast, 19 percent cited print newspapers, 31 percent friends and family, 34 percent non-social media Internet sources and 58 percent, radio and television.While 86 percent of the representative sample surveyed were prepared to share their opinion in face-to-face contexts about Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the NSA, only 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to join a similar conversation about the story on those platforms.
Moreover, Facebook and Twitter users were less likely than others to speak their minds in face-to-face meetings, especially if they thought their friends disagreed with them.
“People were much more likely to share their views, on social networks or in person, if they thought the people they were talking to were likely to agree with them,” Hampton says. Facebook users were twice as likely to post if they thought their Facebook friends would agree; people were three times more likely to discuss Snowden at work if they thought their co-workers would agree with them.
“While other studies have found that people who use social media are more likely to participate in political action – to go to rallies or demonstrations, for instance, or to vote,' Hampton says, "this study shows there’s a difference between participation and discussion or deliberation. People on social media are more likely to act politically, but less likely to share their opinion on important public issues.”
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