By Barry Parks
Developed in 1977, the spiral of silence is a social science and mass communication theory that has been the focus of much academic study. Spiral of silence author Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann hypothesized that individuals who hold majority opinion on moral issues are more likely to voice their opinion in public setting. Conversely, Noelle-Neumann speculated that individuals whose opinions were in the minority faction were less likely to speak up about their opinions, leading to isolation of that opinion. In this process, Noelle-Neumann concluded that majority thought on a controversial issue eventually becomes a social norm.
While Noelle-Neumann’s research focused on public discourse before the development of the Internet, studies in more recent years have considered how the spiral of silence functions in the online environment. A study by Liu and Fahmy sought to evaluate the theory within the new means of interpersonal communication offered by the internet. Describing the online environment as a new type of community, the authors conducted survey research to determine if the spiral of silence theory is as documentable online as it is within public discourse.
To conduct their research, Liu and Fahmy surveyed 503 college undergraduates on the topic of same-sex marriage. This issue was chosen for its controversial and moral nature. The survey subjects were questioned as to their likely behavior in discussing this topic in three online settings (in a chat room, by commenting on a blog, and by interaction on a gay website) and in three offline settings (at a party, in a meeting with strangers, and in a gay bar). The survey evaluated the relative outspokenness of the respondents and their tendency to retain their usual public behaviors in online settings. Behaviors were also analyzed based on the demographics of those surveyed, as well as other traits such as political efficacy and perceived sense of social benefit from participating in any kind of discourse on sensitive matters.
Results of the research survey indicated that the spiral of silence theory operates similarly online as it does in offline settings. Those who possess minority opinion and who are less likely to be outspoken in public settings are also less likely to be vocal about their opinions online. And conversely, those who tend to be publically outspoken and who possess majority opinion will more likely be outspoken online, corroborating Noelle-Neumann’s theory.
The authors identified several factors that contributed to these findings. Basically, they contended that the very nature of the internet can contribute to the spiral of silence online. Even though the internet seemingly offers greater opportunity to be outspoken, survey results indicated that those holding minority opinion and who are hesitant to express it in public discourse tend to be hesitant in the online setting as well. The authors established that the internet as a community can offer a false sense of being in the majority on an opinion, which discourages participation. Further, the vast amount of information and opinion available on the internet can discourage users from participating in conversation at all due to feeling overwhelmed. Finally, because many internet users will choose to remain anonymous and therefore are empowered to be more aggressive in their online communication, more timid users will sense an even greater fear of repercussion and attack for expressing minority viewpoints.
Suggestions for future research included testing whether user perceptions of online discourse are actually accurate, as well as research into how individuals actually assess public opinion in general.