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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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