Can Social Media Save Us from the “Spiral of Silence?”

by Karen Solomon, Bioethics Program Student

Studies suggest that, before the advent of the Internet, we are unlikely to share minority or unpopular viewpoints with our co-workers, friends and relatives. This inclination creates, in essence, a “Spiral of Silence.”

But does the Internet provide a remedy to the “Spiral of Silence,” by encouraging online discussion of viewpoints that may be unpopular? Contrary to the hopes of social media advocates, new research finds that social media may not provide a voice to those who feel uncomfortable expressing minority viewpoints in face-to-face relationships.

Scientists at the Pew Research Center surveyed 1801 adults regarding a political issue over which public opinion was divided: Edward Snowden’s leak of the US government’s extensive surveillance program. The survey examined three areas: subjects’ opinions about the leaks, subjects’ willingness to express their opinions about the leaks in both online and face-to-face contexts, and subjects’ perceptions of others’ opinions in online and face-to-face settings.

They found that those who were not comfortable discussing their opinion about the Snowden leaks in face-to-face discussions were also unwilling to use social media as an outlet to post their viewpoints. Among the 14% who would not discuss the leaks in face-to-face discussions, only 0.3% of these were willing to post their opinions on social media.

In fact, researchers found that the “Spiral of Silence” also applied to social media. Those on Facebook were twice as willing to share their views with their Facebook network when they believed their network was in agreement.

Several factors may explain our continued unwillingness to share controversial opinions, including concerns that online posts may be viewed by future employers or by those in authority. It could also be that social media users, exposed to a wide range of opinions via their social networks, are less willing to speak up because they are “especially tuned into” others’ opinions.

But what would it mean if use of social media does not provide a voice for discussing viewpoints we believe are unpopular? What if social media does not encourage more diverse outlooks on topics we care about? What if instead of encouraging discussions, it turns out that use of social media does the opposite and actually stifles expressing opinions our face-to-face interactions, even when we feel others would agree?

Social media is still relatively new, despite its far-reaching impact on how many of us communicate. If we accept that our willingness to share opinions and reactions to events and information is important to how we learn, understand, and think about what is important for us in managing work, school, and our relationships, then this study provides plenty of food for thought. Online learning is ever more important for higher education, which is increasingly provided online and integral to the training and education of professionals, including tomorrow’s bioethicists.

Discussions that nurture diversity of opinion foster sound ethical decision-making. Research into group decision-making cites diversity of opinion as an essential quality of “wise groups.” Diversity of opinion allows for the consideration of all relevant information, surmounting the “herd mentality” that can rob groups of their independence when tackling ethical dilemmas. Recognizing and addressing obstacles to deliberative decision-making is integral to the consistent application of ethical principles across domains, including social media and ethics blogs, discussion boards in online bioethics courses, and hospital ethics committee meetings.

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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