Social Media Users Unlikely to Disagree With Consensus, Online and Off

In the utopian vision of the internet, social media provides a platform where we can share opinions, debate and argue; a space for free discussion and constructive discourse. Turns out, the opposite is true.

A new report from Pew Research aimed to investigate whether our digital realm alleviates the social phenomenon that is the "spiral of silence": that thing where you don't speak up about policy issues in public—or even with family and friends—because you think your own point of view isn't widely shared. Studying 1,801 adults, the report looked at the sharing of opinions about the widespread government surveillance of Americans' phone and email records following the Snowden leaks of 2013.

It threw up some interesting findings. Firstly, people were less willing to discuss the issues via social media than they were in person. While 86 percent of those interviewed had in-person conversations about the surveillance, just 42 percent did the same on Facebook and Twitter. In both cases, people were more willing to share their opinions if they conformed with those they were talking with.

But perhaps most interesting is the fact Facebook and Twitter were less likely to share their opinions in face-to-face settings, too. It seems that, especially when the people they are friends with on Facebook or follow on Twitter have different opinions to them, users shy away from sharing opinions. Indeed, the report explains that an average Facebook user—someone who "uses the site a few times a day"—was "half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant."

The findings are limited, sure: they surveyeed under 2,000 people about a single news event. But they're indicative of a trend and likely align with many of the experiences we've had. And at any rate, it's perhaps not too surprising. Our social networks are increasingly powered by algorithms designed to feed us news that aligns with what we want to see and hear. It's only natural that the upshot of that kind of tuned information delivery would make us worry about sharing opinions that were out of step. What, you disagree? [Pew Research via NYT]