The news: A new Pew survey of 1,801 adults on their use of social media has concluded that, despite its name (hint: social), Americans aren't actually all that willing to talk about political issues online or on various platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Instead, any real dialogue is suppressed by what Pew calls the "spiral of silence," in which people who perceive their political views are in the minority stay mostly quiet, fearing a backlash.
Basically, Pew concluded that your loudmouth uncle or staunchly liberal-hippie friend from high school are the exception on sites like Facebook or Twitter, rather than the norm.
The key points: Here are a few key points from the report, which used the Edward Snowden-NSA debate on government surveillance as a stand-in for other issues.
- It's less popular than talking offline. While 86% of Americans were willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA issue in person, just 42% would on social media.
- Social media isn't an alternative platform: Of the 14% who weren't willing to talk about surveillance in person, almost none (0.3%) said they'd post to social media instead.
- People are more willing to discuss issues with people who agree with them: Respondents were three times as likely to report feeling comfortable with a Snowden-NSA discussion with coworkers if they thought they agreed with them. This applied to Facebook use as well, where people who thought their networks agreed with them were twice as likely to speak out.
Of all the various settings Pew asked about, social media was at the bottom of the list:
Pew's research team believes that the findings reflects the spiral of silence. Social media users don't like to speak up because they're unsure if their following will agree with them and they want to avoid conflict. In smaller, personal settings, willingness to discuss politics goes up because people are more likely to know and agree with other potential participants.
What's more, active Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to report willingness to engage in political discussions in person as well. A Pew survey from 2012 found that 38% of respondents had been surprised to learn an acquaintance's political views on social media, providing some evidence that fear of isolation from someone is driving silence on politics. The current survey reinforces that.
However, Pew thinks that fear of surveillance isn't a viable explanation, since the survey was taken before the majority of the Snowden revelations.
Of course, there are alternate explanations. Such as:
1. A sizable portion of social media users (around 28%-38%) report being engaged in some kind of political or social discussion on Facebook or Twitter, so it might just be that a small minority of social users are engaged in discussion about one political issue at any given time.
2. Re/code's Peter Kafka notes that the silence on social media might partially come from being exposed to a range of controversial opinions.
3. This hesitation to sound off on Facebook or Twitter might also come from a desire to avoid shooting poorly thought-out opinions to many people at once, and thus the conversations online might be more valuable or productive.
4. Finally, Twitter and Facebook could just have many young people who are not particularly interested in politics or are interested in issues other than the Snowden scandal.
Why you should care: Social media users may be less chatty about controversial topics than we've been led to believe. "We like to think, as people who care about media, that it would be best if everyone knew everything, and there was perfect information flow," study coauthor Keith Hampton told the Washington Post. "But this suggests, oddly, that ... if we find out there is diversity there, that may be somewhat jarring.
"... For political deliberation and how it impacts offline deliberation, social media is not so good, or at least not doing as much for those conversations as we had hoped."
But what's also notable about this is that in some respects, social media is failing in its promise to serve as a global platform for an open exchange of ideas. Just because we're all connected and technically able to share our ideas, that doesn't mean we will, and if the loudest voices win out on social media, as they so often do in real life, the spiral of silence will just sink deeper and deeper.