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