Sunday

Public Diplomacy 2.0: Social Media's Spiral of Silence

A major insight into human behavior from pre-internet era studies of communication is the tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared. This tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”
                The above was quoted in a report published in August, 2014, by the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. The report was a the result of a survey of conducted by these institutions that "sought people’s opinions about the Snowden leaks, their willingness to talk about the revelations in various in-person and online settings, and their perceptions of the views of those around them in a variety of online and off-line contexts." (as quoted in the report).

            According to the authors of the report, the key takeaway from the survey, and as cited by the New York Times later, was the finding that social media seems to have "diminished rather than enhanced political participation." Social media seems to be silencing debates by encouraging a "group think mentality" where people restrain from expressing opinions within their social networks, for fear of social exclusion, if they perceive that their network may not share their opinion. As per the theory of "Spiral of Silence" it reflects a dominance of the majority point of view over a minority's.

(Source: communicationtheory.org)
               This survey can potentially burst the social media bubble among Public Diplomacy fraternity. For PD practitioners who are in countries or focusing on countries with restrictions on media, the dominant view of looking at social media as the alternate platform for a more broad based engagement the finding hopefully would encourage a "re look" into their strategy.

              I look at this as primarily an opportunity to introspect and assess the real impact of social media in the process of political mobilization and dissent.

  1. Is there self censorship and group think in social media debates?
  2. Will a minority group be vocal against a majority group on social media platforms?
                The second question is more interesting I guess, as internet is known for it's unshackling tendency and its ability to disrupt. When we apply it in the context of the Arab Spring, as most experts rush to establish the correlation, what we may be overlooking is the fact that the Arab Spring was the rage of a powerless majority against a an elite minority that controlled all power. Maybe that's the reason why the spiral of silence did not occur in Egypt and social media was highly effective in mobilizing dissent.

         A different point of view, as seen in the Columbia Journalism Review, stated that,

"A hesitancy to share online could actually be a valuable restraint for someone who would otherwise have shot an unthinking opinion into the digital ether, safe in the knowledge their network of followers would agree with their views."

"... When the web is saturated with opinions on the news, restraint and thoughtfulness—regardless of whether followers agree or not—matter too."

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