Two years ago, the Pew Research Center reported that more than a third of social media users have used networking sites to post their own thoughts or comments on political and social issues. Simultaneously, nearly 20 percent of those polled said social networking sites were so powerful that their personal views on a political issue had been changed after “discussing or reading posts” about the issue on these platforms.

But a recent study from Pew reveals that the tides may be turning when it comes to talking about political issues online — a truth that could hold significant implications for both the social web and America’s political future.

Based on the communication theory introduced by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the spiral of silence theory translates to the digital world, too, Pew found in the report “Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence.’” The idea is this: Those who might have an opinion on an issue decide not to share with their close communities — such as family and friends — due to fear of taking the opposing view and being isolated, leading to a monopoly on public opinion.

According to Pew, the news about Edward Snowden revealing mass surveillance by the NSA didn’t get the traction on social media many may have expected. That’s right — no matter how opinionated you perceive your Facebook friends and Twitter followers as being, in general, those social websites were not a source of widespread discussion about Snowden or NSA troves of phone and email surveillance.

A culture of silence

Despite the boom in social media usage, Pew found that platforms including Facebook and Twitter were not utilized as tools for discussion on the Snowden/NSA topic. But why? The research center’s Internet Project found that not only were the 1,801 respondents “less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person,” but they also determined that average Facebook or Twitter users were especially “less likely” to voice their concerns during real-life interactions if they felt their “friends” or “followers” would not support their viewpoint. This is actually pretty noteworthy, because as Pew researchers and several Rutgers University PhD students wrote, American citizens do indeed have strong opinions about the NSA surveillance.

Wrote the report’s authors:

“We selected this issue because other surveys by the Pew Research Center at the time we were fielding this poll showed that Americans were divided over whether the NSA contractor’s leaks about surveillance were justified and whether the surveillance policy itself was a good or bad idea. For instance, Pew Research found in one survey that 44% say the release of classified information harms the public interest while 49% said it serves the public interest.”

And yet, online it seems there is resistance toward sharing. While 86 percent of Americans said they would agree to an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, only slightly more than 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users would post their opinions on their platforms. Pew also found that people who believed their audience would agree with their thoughts were three times more likely to share during a workplace discussion on Snowden and the NSA. Still, 14 percent of those polled said they would not talk about the issue in person. And a mere 0.3 percent would take their viewpoints to their social web friends.

Photo by Ministerio TIC Colombia on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Ministerio TIC Colombia on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

According to Pew, the “typical Facebook user,” which could be defined as someone who visits the site several times in a day, is half as likely as a non-Facebooker to “be willing to have a discussion” regarding Snowden in real life. It’s the same story for an average Twitter user, who is 25 percent as likely to discuss his thoughts about NSA surveillance during a workplace conversation as one who doesn’t tweet.

Situations Where Sharing Is More Comfortable

As Pew’s Lee Rainie and Keith Hampton wrote in a Pew press release, “If [Facebook users] felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher, although they were still only 0.74 times as likely to voice their opinion.”

Still, it’s easy to see that people feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts about the NSA story in certain situations. The Pew report learned the following:

  • “74% of all adults said they would be “very” or “somewhat” willing to join the conversation if the Snowden-NSA story came up at a family dinner.

  • 74% of all adults said they would be “very” or “somewhat” willing to join the conversation if the Snowden-NSA story came up at a restaurant with friends.

  • 66% of all adults said they would be “very” or “somewhat” willing to join the conversation if the Snowden-NSA story came up at a community meeting.

  • 65% of employed adults said they would be “very” or “somewhat” willing to join the conversation if the Snowden-NSA story came up at work.

  • 42% of Facebook users said they would be “very” or “somewhat” willing to join the conversation on Facebook.

  • 41% of Twitter users said they would be “very” or “somewhat” willing to join the conversation if the Snowden-NSA story came up on Twitter.

What the data means

So, what gives? Where does the spiral begin and end? And why are social media users holding back on their opinions? Pew found that there are other factors affecting whether or not a person shares his or her viewpoint on social media.

The availability and convenience of the platform have little to do with someone’s inclination to post about the Snowden-NSA issue. As the research indicates, social media users were more likely to share with friends if they felt confident in their knowledge of the issue. It seems there is a greater burden to overcome when informally publishing an opinion than there is for speaking about an issue in a real-life social setting; the prerequisite for many is learning a lot about the topic.

Additionally, those polled responded that they were less likely to post an opinion about Snowden if they didn’t have strong feelings about his actions. So, “intensity of opinion” matters if there’s a question about posting to social. Finally, researchers found that those people who had a high level of interest in the Snowden/NSA issue were more likely to accept the risk of public isolation to post an opinion. Those who didn’t understand the specifics of the issue or didn’t care much about its implications weren’t willing to break out of their silence.

Photo by mkhmarketing on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by mkhmarketing on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

In general, we know now that Facebook and Twitter did not serve as especially useful platforms for disseminating information or sharing opinions regarding the Snowden issue. Pew reported that only 15 percent of social media users got “at least some information” about the policy issue while on Facebook, and only three percent learned anything about it on Twitter. Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent learned about the NSA’s mass surveillance programs on a TV or radio program.

Even Instagram users — who tend to be younger and more Internet-savvy — were 2.46 times more likely to get news about the surveillance programs from TV or radio than those who don’t have use Instagram.

Some Takeaways

It’s important to understand that Pew’s data set is relatively small, having only explored the social media sharing habits associated with one political issue. There are a few possible takeaways, wrote the study’s authors.

“A spiral of silence might spill over from online contexts to in-person contexts, though our data cannot definitively demonstrate this causation. It also might mean that the broad awareness social media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned into the opinions of those around them,” the report reads.

The spiral of silence theory may not have been proven if the issue were something different, like Net neutrality or the Hobby Lobby health care decision. However, the fear of isolation, being disagreed with and becoming ostracized by social media followers and friends is evidently a real concern for Facebook and Twitter users. Pew acknowledges that the study is “not an exhaustive review of all public policy issues and the way they are discussed in social media,” but it’s an eye-opening look at the potential there is for self-censorship on the web — and possibly, a means of helping to overcome that censorship.

Angela Washeck is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas. She is a proud graduate of Texas A&M University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a journalism minor. Angela also writes for MediaBistro’s 10,000 Words blog and TexasMonthly.com, and she once interned with the TV newsmagazine “Dan Rather Reports.” Her work has been republished on Editor & Publisher, the American Press Institute and more. When Angela is not busy with PBS MediaShift work, you can find her watching “How I Met Your Mother” reruns, watching Aggie football and attending indie/folk concerts in Dallas. Follow her @angelawasheck.