Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

With folks yapping all day on social media — Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and the rest — how can there be such a thing as a “spiral of silence” online?

Easy. Just make the experience of online political debate so disjointed, impersonal and unpleasant that people shut themselves up. Or they hide out in groupings where everyone says much the same thing. In that case, what they’re doing is cheerleading, not debating.

The “spiral of silence” is a theory that people hesitate to say things they believe others in their group won’t agree with. It predates the Internet age.

Let me add that the “spiral of silence” disproportionately affects the shy, the thoughtful and the female.

Social media were supposed to free these cooped-up opinions by offering new venues for speaking one’s piece. But this high-minded promise of a vast online town hall for pensive argument has fallen flat, according to a new report by Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.

If anything, people seem less willing to engage in real back-and-forth about public affairs on websites than they are in old-fashioned personal settings, the researchers found.

We’re talking about politics here, not hiking trips, kitchen renovations and dog adoptions. And the politics we’re talking about is not a rally for Sen. Foghorn — the sort of thing that works well online — but a real hashing out of political differences.

To find out how the public ranks social media as a place for political debate, the researchers asked questions about Edward Snowden’s leaks of the National Security Agency’s operations. They used this issue because polls found the public fairly divided on the subject.

Only 16 percent of respondents who use Facebook said they’d discuss it there. And only 14 percent of those on Twitter said they’d talk about it on Twitter.

But 40 percent said they’d be willing to debate the matter at a family dinner table and 32 percent at a restaurant with friends.

Why aren’t we doing more political interchange online? For starters, the Web fragments us into bands of the like-minded. People with minority views can huddle with others holding the same views, making them feel safer, part of a majority.

Further, online interaction is notoriously devoid of restraints on anti-social behavior — doubly so when creeps hide behind fake identities or go anonymous. Not everyone can laugh at “You are an idiot.” And for the vulnerable, squads of lowlife trolls can multiply the hurt.

Here’s another possible reason for social media’s poor showing as a stage for political debate. How can anyone engage in a serious discussion on Facebook with videos of goats nuzzling monkeys cluttering the feeds, alongside pix of weddings and kayaks?

As for Twitter, how can anything more complicated than the temperature in Chicago be discussed in 140 characters or fewer? What passes on Twitter for political debate is often a battle of links. People offer a link to a longer article or post and then add only a handful of their own words, such as “I agree” or “This guy is right” or “You’re wrong, read this.”

According to the Pew-Rutgers report, people weren’t even using social media for basic information about the Snowden-NSA conflict. Almost 60 percent said that television/radio was one of their sources. Some 34 percent said they used online sources other than social media — mainly the sites of mainstream news organizations, I bet. Only 15 percent sought knowledge on the issue through Facebook, and a mere 3 percent used Twitter.

It all sounds paradoxical, but here we have it: Noise only increases the silence on things that matter to our society.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

  • sigrid28

    Since the nineteenth century, orators and politicians have missed the input of “the silent majority.”

  • stcroixcarp

    I signed up for facebook so I could see pictures of my grandkids. Most of what people post on facebook is of no interest to me at all. I don’t care that my niece likes Capital One. I don’t care if my daughter watches a tv show about vampires and zombies. I am not interested in knowing that my neighbor’s dog had tapeworms. Why would I discuss important stuff like politics or religion with people who post pictures of a pig on a trampoline?

  • jointerjohn

    I deactivated my Facebook account after three years of trying to find some good reason to use it. I find many of the political news sites to have their blogging population overloaded with grumpy old men who aren’t the least bit interested in learning anything that doesn’t reinforce their point of view. Much like churches, they are gathering places for people who want to be around only others who agree with them. Whenever too many people around me agree with my opinions and views I figure one of two things; I’m either not getting out enough, or I am just plain wrong. Sometimes it can be both.

  • … but we have to remember, that most of those on FB are young, politically inexperienced & Civically uneducated, so much of this sort of dialogue is foreign to them. A tragedy by any standard. How to relay that their interests, their FUTURE, in fact, lay in their Civic engagement is going to be the real test of pulling free of their narcisism & oblivion, to realize the world is so much larger than their mirror, tablet & iphone…

  • ExRadioGuy15

    I’m a Non-Affiliated voter and haven’t belonged to a political party since 1990. What I care about are the truth, facts, logic, reason and common sense of matters.
    When I post on pages on Facebook, my intended audience are not the insane and Fascist GOP ideologues….there are many GOP Progressives and Moderates who read posts and such but don’t comment….THEY are my intended audience. The reason for that is simple: in 1920, the GOP began a Fascist “gaslighting” propaganda campaign to get millions of the newly-minted voters of the time, women, to vote for them. The “gaslighting” back then was mostly Prohibition…the GOP was smart enough to know that, if they picked the “Dry” side of the Prohibition debate, women would flock to the polls and vote for them.
    The plan worked like a charm, as the GOP ruled politics throughout the Roaring Twenties. But, when the Fascist financial policies of the GOP led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which launched the Great Depression, that plan no longer worked. It took nearly four decades for the GOP to win the White House and both Houses of Congress again.
    So, what I do is to counteract the current version of the GOP’s propaganda campaign with the truth. The following is just one variation of the quote, but it’s true: “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on” (Winston Churchill). So, repeating the truth constantly is the only way to counteract the GOP’s propaganda campaign.
    The reason I wrote what I wrote just above is that the “non-commenters” of the GOP have been subject to so much GOP Fascist “gaslighting” propaganda that they’re confused. So, I “unconfuse” them with the truth.