Research on how Edward Snowden's explosive leaks were shared on social media has found using Twitter and Facebook may actually encourage self-censorship.
The Pew Research poll finds that contrary to the hype, people may share less on social media when it comes to hot topics.
There is a “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’,” says the recent study.
The survey of 1,801 US adults was conducted by the Pew Research Center, a US think tank that provides information on social issues and public opinion. It was fielded August 7-September 16, 2013, by Princeton Research Associates International.
The study focused on one important public issue: Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of phone and email records of US citizens.
The research says that people “were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person.”
“Eighty-six percent of Americans were willing to have an in-person conversation about the surveillance program, but just 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about it on those platforms.”
Of the remaining 14 percent of Americans who didn’t want to discuss Snowden in person, only “0.3 percent were willing to post about it on social media.”
"People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion. And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere," Keith Hampton, a communications professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who also helped to conduct the study, told AP.
It was also revealed that people are more willing to share their views “if they thought their audience agreed with them.”
“For instance, at work, those who felt their co-workers agreed with their opinion were about three times more likely to say they would join a workplace conversation about the Snowden-NSA situation.”
The paper found that when social media users felt their opinions were not supported online, “they were less likely to say they would speak their minds.”
“The typical Facebook user — someone who logs onto the site a few times per day — is half as likely to be willing to have a discussion about the Snowden-NSA issues at a physical public meeting as a non-Facebook user,” the study found.
The researchers from the Pew Research studies concluded that it is common for Facebook and Twitter users “to be mistaken about their friends’ beliefs.”
“It might be the case that people do not want to disclose their minority views for fear of disappointing their friends, getting into fruitless arguments, or losing them entirely.”
The survey says that some internet users may prefer not to show their opinions in social networks “because their posts persist and can be found later — perhaps by prospective employers or others with high status.”
“We 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,” write the authors of the research.
According to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, that social media websites may sensitize people to different opinions, reported AP.
"Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts," he said. "This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend."
Hampton added that the results of the survey show a major concern for today’s society.
“A society where people aren't able to share their opinions openly and gain from understanding alternative perspectives is a polarized society,” he said.