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Tired of hearing all of your friends spout off on Facebook and Twitter? Here’s a consolation: If they weren’t on Facebook and Twitter, they would talk a lot more.

That’s the surprising conclusion from new research that argues that social media users are less likely to talk about controversial issues online than in the real world.

Just as surprising: People who use Facebook and Twitter are less likely to talk about hot-button issues in public than people who don’t use social media.

All of this comes from a provocative report from Pew Research Center, which tracked the way people talked about the Edward Snowden/NSA story that broke last year.

The main thrust is that social media users may be more aware that other people disagree with their opinions, which makes them less likely to share them, “for fear of ostracism or ridicule.” It’s a digital era update on “the spiral of silence,” a theory first proposed in the 1970s.

Pew’s researchers, led by a team from Rutgers University, found that 86 percent of Americans were willing to talk about Snowden and the NSA in person, but that only 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users wanted to talk about it on those services.

Facebook Twitter Discussion of Snowden/NSA via Pew

And Pew says social media users are less vocal in the real world, too. An active Facebook user was half as likely to talk about the controversy “at a physical public meeting” as a non-user. Twitter users were 0.24 times less likely to chat in meatspace.

(Pew’s team considered, but rejected, the notion that people were less likely to talk about a digital surveillance controversy for fear that they would become digital surveilled.)

Two caveats: Pew’s research is supposed to gauge Americans’ willingness to talk about controversial stuff, not about Emmy snubs or kale salads or how freaking cute your kids/pets are. Which explains why there’s so much noise in your feeds.

Also, Pew gives itself an out by positing that for certain controversial topics, all of the above goes out the window — if you really feel strongly about a topic, and feel like you know a lot about it, you may sound off. Which explains all of the Gaza commentary you may have seen recently.

Still, the most surprising thing to me about Pew’s research is that exposure to Twitter and Facebook means exposure to opinions you don’t share.

I have a vague-yet-strong belief in Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble” theory, which argues that you create the online community you want to see, and it’s going to be filled with people who share your views. If that’s the case, then why would people be afraid to sound off?

But report author Keith Hampton, an associate communication professor at Rutgers, argues that we end up sharing more of ourselves on Twitter and Facebook than we think, and that our friends/family/followers take notice.

“In general, we tend to assume that the people we associate with are more like us than they really are,” Hampton said. “Social media lets us know about the ‘hidden diversity’ out there.”




2 comments
Mike_Legg
Mike_Legg

This is great! This should be one of those studies that gets passed around the internet, because it's actually saying something interesting rather than telling us what's wrong with our brains or what science explains procrastination.


Most people I know on Facebook form gated communities and then never leave them, and it's a completely useless platform for actually "sharing" because it's used much more as a promotional vehicle than anything, thanks to Facebook's mechanical concept of social engineering.


The internet doesn't really permit opinions, as there are accessible facts everywhere that can refute any and all perspective that is unpopular or unverified. There are acceptable topics that allow for challenging discourse, but they've already been mandated and censored or credited by whoever tells people to think these days - "influencers" or social ambassadors or whatever you'd like to call stylish pedants.


People professing to introduce radical ideas are usually businessmen or marketing professionals, as anyone with a truly challenging proposal either has to become satirical, which effectively denudes the initial message, or be labeled a depressive or a cynic. 

The correlation between social media's silencing of minority opinions and the alarming trend of casually assigning psychological disorders to those who challenge authority is something we all need to watch very carefully and make sure doesn't result in a homogeneous monoculture.

Monica Paolini
Monica Paolini

The results do not surprise me. Of course I am more willing to talk about controversial (or simply complex) issues at home over dinner, than over Twitter of Facebook where the content is public and cannot even be easily erased. 


What would be interesting to see, however, is if the same people that flood us with progress reports on their babies are less likely that those who are not even on Facebook to discuss the same controversial topics over dinner. 


It could be that those of us that are keener to discuss complex topics find Facebook shallow and stay away from it. And those of us who like to talk about what happens during the day, find dinner conversation about Snowden boring. Or maybe there is no correlation.

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