When it comes to Facebook, we all just want to be popular, study finds

BY Ruth Tam  August 26, 2014 at 11:20 AM EST
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A new Pew Research Center report finds that social media users are more likely to share opinions their readers are likely to agree with. Photo by Flickr user Jason Howie

Ice bucket challenge. VMAs. Emmys. Wash, rinse, refresh page.

If you think your Facebook NewsFeed or Twitter timeline is becoming an echo chamber of the same material, you’re right. According to a new Pew Research Center report on the role of social media in civil discourse, Facebook might not be the best place to have a lively debate on a difficult topic.

Why? People are more likely to self-censor on social media if they think they have a minority opinion. This is what the study’s lead authors Keith Hampton, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, and Lee Rainie, Pew director of Internet, Science & Technology Research, have dubbed the “spiral of silence.” Instead, posts shared online are opinions with which their authors think their readers are likely to agree.

Take the debate over NSA surveillance. In 2013, 86 percent of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the Edward Snowden-NSA story but only 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on their profiles.

And, if people were actually comfortable with discussing the story in person, they were far more likely to actually have a conversation at work about the story if they thought their coworkers agreed with them.

Though the study did not delve into the direct cause of why people fall into the “spiral of silence,” Hampton and Rainie hypothesize that people fear social isolation.

“People don’t feel like speaking out when they feel like it’s not met with a positive reception,” said Hampton. “You don’t want to lose friends or be on the receiving end of an embarrassing comment. That’s the traditional line of ostracism.”

In addition, Rainie speculated that when people look out onto their social media networks, they noticed a “broader level of disagreement.”

“They’re watching Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and they’re aware of more arguments, more contentions and more disputes than they were aware of at first,” said Rainie. “There’s this capacity to watch constantly what’s around you and it gives people a sense that there are more arguments [than their own].”

“If they don’t want the hassle of a dispute, it gives them more incentive to keep quiet,” Rainie said.

And what of the small fraction of Facebook and Twitter users willing to join in a conversation on a difficult topic?

“They’re opinionated,” Hampton laughed. “They’re intense. They tend to be more knowledgeable. And they’re interested in the topic.”

While these social media findings are new, studies have shown for years that people are already prone to sharing their opinions with people who already agree with them. What’s different about these latest numbers?

According to Tufts University professors Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, the tendency to self-censor is one of the byproducts of the “outrage industry,” a climate of extreme political opinion media that has MSNBC on one side of the political spectrum and FOX News on the other. Berry and Sobieraj argue that political opinion media programs like “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Sean Hannity Show” have become more popular over time and more extreme.

When the hosts of such shows “vilify and belittle the people with whom we disagree and inflate our own sense of moral righteousness, different perspectives on the role of government … are inflated from policy preferences into litmus tests for human decency,” Berry and Sobieraj wrote in their book, “The Outrage Industry.” “This slippage between the critique of ideas and the critique of those holding the ideas likely limits our openness to other perspectives and the people who hold them.”

If readers are using social media posts as the ultimate test of character, it’s a wonder why all users don’t keep mum.

But the problem with the “spiral of silence” is that it confirms the worst of conversing via social media — that it’s all talk and less walk. The study showed that while Facebook and Twitter might be useful for participating in political issues or social campaigns like the ice bucket challenge, they aren’t providing a forum for true deliberation, an activity Hampton and Rainie believe is necessary for a healthy democracy.