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Social Networking Sites: Getting People to Speak Their Minds

Fumiko Nagano's picture

On Facebook, I have noticed an interesting trend: some of my friends who are normally introverted and shy in person are a lot more vocal and seem to have fewer qualms about voicing their opinions on the site. They post status updates sharing their thoughts on issues, comment on others’ posts, and provide links to websites, articles, photos and videos about topics that they deem important, even creating interest-specific groups to attract those who are keen to participate in online discussions on key causes. Part of this phenomenon might be psychological. Maybe we feel a certain degree of safety on social networking sites because they give us the option not to have to engage in physical, face-to-face interactions with those who might disagree. On these interfaces, there is no need to worry about potentially negative consequences arising from differences in opinion, such as ridicule, humiliation, confrontation, and isolation. If social networking sites can embolden even the shiest of us to voice our true opinions, could they be the answer to breaking the spiral of silence on contested issues?

In “Breaking the Spiral of Silence about Corruption,” Anne-Katrin Arnold talks about Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory and how it relates to corruption. The spiral of silence describes the process of public opinion formation and crystallization. It posits that people, in their fear of sticking out, censor their opinion if they perceive it to be unpopular, opting to adopt what they sense to be the majority opinion until that opinion becomes dominant and the rest peter out.

This theory applies well to petty corruption. When people view that bribery is the socially accepted norm in getting things done in life and that everyone engages in it, it is natural that they would be afraid to speak up against the practice even if they believe it is wrong. The fear of isolation and retribution keeps them in check. But if they had a platform like Facebook where they could discuss these issues in a less threatening environment, could a more true reflection of what people actually feel about controversial issues begin to surface? And once people start speaking out, others might feel less scared to join in the online deliberations that could eventually unleash a tidal change of public opinion that can finally stop, and hopefully reverse, the spiral of silence on corruption.

This, of course, is wishful thinking. The potential benefits that social networking sites have to contribute to good governance and demand for accountability should not be exaggerated. Context matters and access remains a challenge in developing countries, not to mention that the vast majority of posts, at least on Facebook, are not on substantive issues (nor was the site originally intended for this purpose). More importantly, the jury is still out on whether interest groups formed on social networking sites can actually lead to group mobilization in the public sphere. As Robert Faris and Bruce Etling write in their paper, “Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy,” “…the Internet may hurt civil society and civic participation more than promote it, as individuals find it easier to form shallow online relationships instead of building deep relationships with accountability to each other. Many Americans today may be more likely to donate money to a favorite charity or sign up for a Facebook cause rather than go the “extra mile” and take action in the real world…If online groups are to build social capital better than offline mass-membership organizations, they will need to build ties between members that are deeper than simply having common friends, activities, symbols, leaders, or ideals. Social networking sites and other Web 2.0 technologies seem to offer the promise of deeper ties and increased social capital, but we are still waiting for proof that this is the case.”

We should, therefore, be mindful not to place too much hope on new technologies to unravel old ways of doing things, as Silvio Waisbord points out in his blog post. But they could provide a starting point for a long and gradual process towards changing deeply ingrained social norms that might currently appear impossible to break.

Photo Credit: Flickr user davidking


Submitted by Sameer on
Dear Fumiko, I liked reading your blog today, and now I feel I should go back and read some of the other blogs you have written. Nicely written, well-thought out, and the topic is also very germane to our lives today. It is indeed surprising to see the level of personal detail people are now willing to share online - even in societies not as open as the US, such as India, one notices a new degree of online openness. Maybe it has to do with the feeling of security that you refer to, particularly the absence of a direct contradiction or opposition. And/or perhaps its also about feeling empowered. I would like to draw your attention to the Obama campaign. It was mobilized at least in large measure, online. It was the closest one can come to an online mass movement. And now with health reform hot on the agenda, it looks like Obama is resorting to the online world once again, to bolster his support. Also, in countries like China, and more recently, Iran, the internet and mobile messaging gave voice to those who were being trampled upon. Organized media were blacked out, and yet the world heard and saw the atrocities that went on in Iran. The time may have come, or is around the corner, for the power of technology to influence large masses to be recognized and exploited. Dont you think?

Dear Sameer, Thank you for reading my post and for your comments. I agree with you that unlike traditional media outlets that are generally more prone to state control, the internet and new media can offer a platform for ordinary citizens to voice their opinions and form online communities on important issues. The question is whether these deliberations and associations will lead to real activism. The paper by Faris and Etling cited in my post discusses this point and whether online groups and communities could effectively replace offline activism so important in building and strengthening governance and accountability systems around the world. I hope you will take a look at our blog and comment on our other posts as well. Thanks again for your feedback.

Submitted by Jesse on
I think that the power of the internet to voice views and opinions is still in its infancy stage. People make statements to friends and family, or in some cases to small communities of readers, which they may not have otherwise done without the internet medium, but which nonetheless reach a relatively small target group. I recently launched a website, the purpose of which is to provide a platform for people to voice their opinions in unison with other people of like mind. I think that other sites will move in this direction as well. Rather than focusing on providing an arena for a large number of people to speak their minds on a large number of issues to a large number of potential readers, the effectiveness of a site in causing change could be increased dramatically by allowing a large number of people to contribute their opinions on a single issue, and then target those opinions to a small group of people (who have the ability to take action or make changes based on the aggregate voice). Thanks for the great read.

It's amazing to see how social networks have begin to influence the political process. I love it. Obama in particular done an amazing job. It will be interesting as a case study alone to see how well he can utilize social media the next election cycle. From every day political blogs to full fledged social networks, people are getting their information less from from places like the New York Times and NBC Evening News. Imagine having to depend on commercials, word of mouth, and dumbed down programming to lean more about someone before you cast your vote? Hats off to all those out there sharing quality information. Great job, guys.

Submitted by Jerry on
Great guidelines and encouraging words for the introvert. Being an introvert myself, I can see where different methods need to be employed in order to achieve the same results as the extrovert. But, it is possible to succeed, in spite of the common stereotype given to the introvert. We definitely have our strong points. We just need to know how to recognize them and learn how to use them. Social skills will become more natural if you are persistent at practicing them. Social media could be used as a great outlet to build confidence.

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