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.”
Some social media creators and supporters have hoped that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might produce different enough discussion venues that those with minority views might feel freer to express their opinions, thus broadening public discourse and adding new perspectives to everyday discussion of political issues.
We asked respondents where they were getting information about the debates swirling around the Snowden revelations, and found that social media was not a common source of news for most Americans. Traditional broadcast news sources were by far the most common sources. In contrast, social media sources like Facebook and Twitter were the least commonly identified sources for news on this issue.
People reported being less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person — and social media did not provide an alternative outlet for those reluctant to discuss the issues in person. Not only were social media sites not an alternative forum for discussion, social media users were less willing to share their opinions in face-to-face settings.
In both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them. …This suggests a spiral of silence might spill over from online contexts to in-person contexts. It also might mean that the broad awareness social media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned into the opinions of those around them.