Social Media Bites Its Tongue - InformationWeek

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8/28/2014
09:40 AM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Social Media Bites Its Tongue

Pew Research finds that social media users are less likely to voice opinions face-to-face if they believe their Facebook followers would disagree. Call it surveillance fallout.

Facebook's mission is to make the world more open and connected. But in so doing, it may be making people less willing to speak their minds.

The average Facebook user -- someone who accesses the service a few times every day -- turns out to be half as likely as others to voice an opinion with a friend at a restaurant, according to a study conducted by Pew Research.

If this Facebook user believes his or her followers agree with the opinion at issue, he or she is about three-quarters as likely as others to speak up.

Pew suggests that social media's value as a way to broaden public discourse by encouraging the expression of minority viewpoints may be overstated. The research group theorizes that the spiral of silence -- the tendency of people not to voice their opinions when they believe their views are not shared -- may extend from social media to in-person interaction, effectively dampening dissent online and off.

"[W]e speculate that social media users may have witnessed those with minority opinions experiencing ostracism, ridicule, or bullying online, and that this might increase the perceived risk of opinion sharing in other settings," the Pew study says.

This chilling effect occurs amid deliberate efforts by authorities, and by Facebook itself, to manipulate social media users.

Yet, Pew's study may be barking up the wrong tree. The research firm asked 1,801 adults about leaks last year from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden that revealed widespread surveillance of telephone and online communications by the NSA, about people's willingness to discuss the revelations in-person and online, and about people's perceptions of the views of others.

Pew looked at willingness to discuss the Snowden revelations as a way to measure the social value of social media. But the research group might have done better to focus on the cause rather than the chilling effect, on surveillance itself. If social media dulls dissent, omnipresent, inescapable surveillance deserves some blame, more perhaps than the spiral of silence by which we temper controversial speech.

A study published earlier this year, "Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior," suggests as much. Having surveyed Google search terms before and after the Snowden revelations, the paper found that "users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U. S. government."

A study published by writers group PEN last October came to a similar conclusion. "The fear of surveillance -- and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers -- has prompted PEN writers to change their behavior in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information," the PEN report states. It notes that 28% of PEN writers curtailed their social media usage, among other forms of self-censorship, following the Snowden revelations.

So while it's important to understand that social media does less to invigorate public discourse than many hoped and discourages face-to-face debate, it's at least as important to recognize that surveillance inhibits interaction in all its forms. It's not about the media, social or otherwise; it's about the message -- we're watching -- and what that means to those being watched.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
8/29/2014 | 8:44:31 AM
Re: Social media and identity
The endless inspirational quotes. Please don't encourage that person. On Facebook or Twitter.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/28/2014 | 7:51:06 PM
Re: Social media and identity
>Lots of people perpetuating a contrived "my life is awesome" image while their friends over-praise them for every vacation picture or inspirational quote, thus making them more bold and confident in person than they should be. 

Facebook seems to have a lot of that. 
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
8/28/2014 | 6:26:14 PM
Social media and identity
I can see how people get worn down by making contrarion points on social media and getting widely dissed (or observing that happening a lot), and it starts to make them more cautious in real-life interactions.

But I also see quite the opposite on Facebook. Lots of people perpetuating a contrived "my life is awesome" image while their friends over-praise them for every vacation picture or inspirational quote, thus making them more bold and confident in person than they should be.

Either way, social media is shaping how we express ourselves offline.
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
8/28/2014 | 5:26:39 PM
A little education goes a long way
Worried about surveillance?  Stop using Google search and plain vanilla gmail and start using, instead, PGP, TOR, DuckDuckGo and start reading EFF regularly. BTW this site would not post this comment unless I removed the links to the above referenced.

 
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/28/2014 | 5:21:53 PM
Re: PC police are watching what you say
Or social media just makes us aware of a bigger audience watching everything we do and say.
tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
8/28/2014 | 5:00:48 PM
Society.
I think it is natural behavior of people to identify with the popular opinions. This trend is not only reflected on facebook but it happens in society. Those who share the views of the minority feel apprehensive about sharing their opinions as a long line of internet-warriors may pounce upon them or they just may not choose to speak in fear of their close circle.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
8/28/2014 | 4:04:41 PM
Not social media, just social
I'm not sure if this has much to do with social media as it does with general social behavior. If people consider their followers as acquaintances or even not so close friends they will be less likely to 'rock the boat' with a different opinion. As social creatures we try to get along and if we think our thoughts will be shouted down we have the tendency to keep them to ourselves which is not always a bad thing, but neither is it always a good thing.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
8/28/2014 | 12:27:56 PM
PC police are watching what you say
I guess the point here is that not only are people conscious of what they would say on Facebook, etc., they're also conscious that friends (or acquaintances) could repeat what they said on a social network. Another way to say this is that people who are aware of the power of social networks are more careful about what they say. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.
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