Study: People Hesitant to Opine on Social Media

FacebookOne of the big news stories this week is about how the government has just enlisted members of academia to begin to “police” online opinion for possible “misinformation”,  but a new study has found that people are not as anxious to share their views on-line as most of us believe.

According to the Daily Mail, researchers at the Pew Research Internet Study have detected what they call the “spiral of silence” phenomenon on-line which means people are only willing to opine about hot-button issues if they know their audience agrees with them.

“People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion,” said Keith Hampton, a communications professor at Rutgers University who helped conduct the study. “And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere.”

The survey was conducted shortly after Edward Snowden was caught leaking classified intelligence that exposed just how widespread was the government’s surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records.

A total of 1,801 adults were surveyed and 86 per cent said they would be willing to discuss the issue if it came up at various in-person situations, such as while out with friends, at work, in public meetings.

But when it came to posting those opinions on-line, that number dropped in half to just 42 percent who said they would be willing to post something about it on Facebook or Twitter.

The typical Facebook user, who logs onto the site a few times every day, was half as likely to discuss the Snowden case as was a non-Facebook user. However, Facebook users whose audience agreed with their opinion were twice as likely to join an on-site discussion about it.

Twitter users were found to be one-quarter as likely to share opinions in work than those who never use Twitter.

The research also concluded that social media wasn’t making it any easier for people to share opinions that they wouldn’t otherwise share.

What is causing this phenomenon?

Hampton believes people may be acting this way because they’re afraid of offending someone on-line, a behavior that inadvertently stifles debate.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, believes social media may actually be making people more sensitive to the opinion of others.

“Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts,” Rainie said. “This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend.”

The only problem is that when people aren’t able to share their opinions openly and gain from understanding alternative perspectives, we can become a polarized society, Hampton warned.

This might come as a shock to the National Science Foundation which is financing the creation of a new web service that will monitor on-line “suspicious memes” and what it considers to be “false and misleading ideas”, particularly as it applies to politics.

Called the “Truthy” database, it’s being created by researchers at Indiana University and is costing taxpayers nearly $1 million.

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