The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because they fear isolation from society.
Spiral of silence on the internet
Isolating the factors that remove isolation
The concept of isolation has a variety of definitions, dependent upon the circumstances it is investigated in. In one instance the problem of isolation has been defined as "social withdrawal," defined as low relative frequencies of peer interaction. Other researchers have defined isolation as low levels of peer acceptance or high levels of peer rejection. Research that considers isolation with regard to the Internet either focuses on how the Internet makes individuals more isolated from society by cutting off their contact from live human beings or how the Internet decreases social isolation of people by allowing them to expand their social networks and giving them more means to stay in touch with friends and family. Since the development of the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, a wide variety of groups have come into existence, including Web and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), newsgroups, multiuser dimensions (MUDs), and, more recently, commercial virtual communities. The theories and hypotheses about how Internet-based groups impact individuals are numerous and wide-ranging. Some researchers view these fast growing virtual chat cliques, online games, or computer-based marketplaces as a new opportunity, particularly for stigmatized people, to take a more active part in social life.
Traditionally, social isolation has been represented as a one-dimensional construct organized around the notion of a person's position outside the peer group and refers to isolation from the group as a result of being excluded from the group by peers. From children to adults, literature shows that people understand the concept of isolation and fear the repercussions of being isolated from groups of which they are a member. Fearing isolation, people would not feel free to speak up if they feel they hold dissenting views, which means people restrict themselves to having conversation with like-minded individuals, or have no conversation whatsoever. Witschge further explains, "Whether it is fear of harming others, or fear to get harmed oneself, there are factors that inhibit people from speaking freely, and which thus results in a non-ideal type of discussion, as it hinders diversity and equality of participants and viewpoints to arise fully".
The medium of the Internet has the power to free people from the fear of social isolation, and in doing so, shuts down the spiral of silence. The Internet allows people to find a place where they can find groups of people with like mindsets and similar points of view. Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson stated that "Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own". The features of the Internet could not only bring about more people to deliberate by freeing people of the psychological barriers, but also bring new possibilities in that it "makes manageable large-scale, many-to-many discussion and deliberation". Unlike traditional media that limit participation, the Internet brings the characteristics of empowerment, enormous scales of available information, specific audiences can be targeted effectively and people can be brought together through the medium.
Online versus offline
The internet is a place where many reference and social groups are available with similar views. Online has become a place where it appears that people have less of a fear of isolation. One research article examined individuals’ willingness to speak their opinion online and offline. Through survey results, from 305 participants, a comparison and contrast of online and offline spiral of silence behaviors was determined.  There are more reasons to why there could be less fear online than it is easier to find groups with similar views. Less fear of isolation online might also be due to the fact that in an online setting, it is easier to retreat from the conversation. “…it is easy to quit from an online discussion without the pressure of complying with the majority group.” This is not to say that a Spiral of Silence does not occur in an online environment. People are still less likely to speak out even in an online setting, when there is a dominant opinion that differs from their own. However, in the online instance there has been proof that if someone has a reference group that speaks up for them than he or she will speak up as well. In an online situation just having one person be there to encourage a minority point of view even if it differs can put an end to a spiral of silence. Another reason for why the Spiral of Silence theory has less of an effect online could be that studies do not acknowledge whether the person is more likely to speak out against dominant views offline as well. The person might have characteristics that make him comfortable speaking out against dominant views offline, which make them just as comfortable speaking out in an online setting. Even though research suggests that there is a chance people will speak out with their opinions more often in an online setting, silencing of views can still occur. It might be worth researching whether these factors, or other factors cause online communication to be more comfortable to speak one’s mind.
Heterogeneity and anonymity
The nature of the Internet facilitates not only the participation of more people, but also of a more heterogeneous group of people. Page stated "The onward rush of electronic communications technology will presumably increase the diversity of available ideas and the speed and ease with which they fly about and compete with each other". The reason people engage in deliberations is because of their differences, and the Internet allows differences to be easily found. The Internet seems the perfect place to find different views of a very diverse group of people who are at the same time open to such difference and disagreement needed for deliberation. As stated previously, people avoid deliberation because they fear the consequences. Noelle-Neumann's initial idea of cowering and muted citizens is difficult to reconcile with empirical studies documenting uninhibited discussion in computer-mediated contexts such as chatrooms and newsgroups.
The Internet provides an anonymous setting, and it can be argued that in an anonymous setting, fears of isolation and humiliation would be reduced. Wallace (1999) recognized that when people believe their actions cannot be attributed to them personally, they tend to become less inhibited by social conventions and restraints. This can be very positive, particularly when people are offered the opportunity to discuss difficult personal issues under conditions in which they feel safer.
The groups' ability to taunt an individual is lessened on the Internet, thus reducing the tendency to conform. Wallace goes on to summarize a number of empirical studies that do find that dissenters feel more liberated to express their views online than offline which might result from the fact that the person in the minority would not have to endure taunts or ridicule from people that are making up the majority, or be made to feel uncomfortable for having a different opinion. Stromer-Galley considered that the following characteristics of the online conversation free people from the psychological barriers that keep them from engaging in a face-to-face deliberation; "an absence of non-verbal cues, which leads to a lowered sense of social presence, and a heightened sense of anonymity". Computer-mediated communication decreases social cues, and an absence of non-verbal communication should limit the capacity for ridicule and humiliation when people are physically isolated from each other. In an online discussion group, one possible result is that extreme opinions become muted and thus appear more moderate than they really are. Categorization effects are less likely if other persons are perceived as abstract entities.
The crux of the spiral of silence is that people believe consciously or subconsciously that the expression of unpopular opinions will lead to negative repercussions. These beliefs may not exist on the Internet for several reasons. First, embarrassment and humiliation depends on the physical presence of others. In computer-mediated communication, physical isolation often already exists and poses no further threat. Second, a great deal of normative influence is communicated through nonverbal cues, such as eye contact and gestures, but computer-mediated communication typically precludes many of these cues. Third, Keisler, Siegel, and McQuire observe that nonverbal social context cues convey formality and status inequality in face-to-face communication. When these cues are removed, the importance of social status as source of influence recedes. Group hierarchies that develop in face-to-face interaction emerge less clearly in a mediated environment. The form and consequences of conformity influence should undergo significant changes given the interposition of a medium that reduces the social presence of participants. Social presence is defined as the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction, or the degree to which the medium conveys some of the person's presence.
An important issue in obtaining heterogeneity in conversation is equal access for all the participants and equal opportunities to influence in the discussion. When people believe they are ignorant about a topic, incapable to participate in a discussion or not equal to their peers, they tend to not even become involved in a deliberation. When people do decide to participate, their participation might be overruled by dominant others, or their contribution might be valued less or more, depending on their status, Dahlberg praises the Internet for its possibility to liberate people from the social hierarchies and power relations that exist offline. "The 'blindness' of cyberspace to bodily identity...[is supposed to allow] people to interact as if they were equals. Arguments are said to be assessed by the value of the claims themselves and not the social position of the poster".
Gastil sees this feature as one of the strongest points of the Internet: "if computer-mediated interaction can consistently reduce the independent influence of status, it will have a powerful advantage over face-to-face deliberation". Another characteristic that seems to become less important is status. In a discussion forum, your words would carry more weight than your socioeconomic position. While status cues are difficult to detect, perceptions about the status converge, and this lessens stereotyping and prejudice.
It may be that people do feel more equal in online forums than they feel offline. For one thing is certain: racism, ageism, and other kinds of discrimination against out groups "seems to be diminishing because the cues to out-group status are not as obvious". Next to this, the Internet has rapidly and dramatically increased the capacities to develop, share and organize information, realizing more equality of access to information. This might in time lead to more equally informed citizens with more equal capacities to deliberate.
The idea that social isolations cannot exist on the internet must not be confused with the effects that the Internet has on isolating individuals within society. One idea focuses on how the Internet has a positive or negative effect on people's lives though their usage of the Internet. The idea behind this examination was to focus on the interactions that take place on the Internet. Recent literature has brought up the ideas that the Internet reduces social cues, facilitates a lowered sense of social presence and allows users to remain relatively anonymous. All of these ideas lend themselves to a possible hypothesis that they all eliminate the potential for social isolation on the Internet. Further research is needed to test that hypothesis, but if proven, it will show that the spiral of silence cannot exist within the medium of the Internet.
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