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Given the volatile political climate of the west as well as the accessibility of the internet, social media, as well as media in general, has become a battleground between political parties that in turn has caused a large divide, however back in the days before the internet, many people were not as vocal about their political views, especially if it was a view held by a minority of the population, a good example being right-wing Trump Supporters in the US being vocal about their vote despite the left demonizing the President and outwardly stating their hatred towards him. In this piece, I will try to find out whether the internet and its media have made the Spiral of Silence theory obsolete whilst also trying to understand why nothing upon the internet is under the guise of free speech as well as if the inherent freedom is the causation of such a result in political opinion.

The Spiral of silence theory

Introduced in 1974 Noelle-Neumann, a political scientist, developed a model of public opinion called the Spiral of Silence that was based on the study of human communication and public opinion. The theory surmised that people’s willingness to express their opinions on controversial public issues is influenced by the unconscious perceptions of opinions deemed popular and unpopular. In turn, the unpopular opinion in silence whilst the popular is further encouraged.{1} The spiral of silence theory has been criticized however for being hyperbolic about the strength fear and intimidation has over an individual in various social settings, as well as the theory is based upon small-group conformity research to provide an explanation of the dynamics of opinion expression.

Media and its relationship to politics

Due to the broad reach of mass media as well as the recent creation of the internet which has led to the landscape of communication becoming denser, more complex as well as becoming much more participatory, the spiral of silence came into fruition more so than it would have before the time of mass digital media. This is due to the fact that the majority’s opinion would be more widespread than just a city or state but on the scale of an opinion being popular across the country. As seen in a case study regarding the theory and its effects on the perception of smoking conducted by Shanahan, Scheufele, Yang, and Hizi{2}. The case study concluded that mass media and its exposure is related to perceptions and public support of smoking, albeit indirectly. The case study also discusses the implication of the spiral of silence theory in the study’s result, however, due to lack of access I was unable to read the entire book to gain insight into the findings as well as possible theories that could, in fact, be the leading cause of the results as opposed to the cause being the Spiral of silence theory in action, thus proving my hypothesis albeit weakly.

This case study does highlight, however, the influence and power the media has over people’s perceptions as well as how it possibly utilizes the spiral of silence to further its agenda or opinion. This point is furthered in a journal article written by C. Shirky about the “Political Power of Social Media”{3} which focuses on social media’s potential to support civil societies and public spheres as well as explain the ideology that the government should aim to maintain internet freedom as opposed to using it to achieve policy aims concerning other countries.

The article states that social media allows for greater access to information enabling people with more opportunities to engage in public speaking as well as allowing them to undertake collective action. This strategy is known as The Philippine strategy, which has been adopted many times since the initial strategy was used during the protests in Manila.

The strategy succeeded in 2004 in Spain where Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was ousted for inaccurately blaming the Madrid bombings on Basque separatists. The demonstration was arranged via social media and text messages and resulted in the event becoming the first to ever remove a national leader from power using social media. This event solidifies the relationship between social media and politics whilst also showing the power Media has over it. The journal notes multiple successful and unsuccessful protests coordinated via social media as well as the effects social media has on the US and its interests regarding politics and orders.

Now, this journal does not note the spiral of silence theory in the slightest meaning it does not disprove or prove my hypothesis however it does provide information on the relationship between the two. Another notation on media’s relationship to politics is when the Supreme Court prevented California from regulating the sales of violent video games calling the order ‘unconstitutional’, Justice Scalia stated that “Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”{4} The article written by the verge analyzes how the bill could have won if the bill regulated games with sexual content instead of violence, however, that information and analysis provides no information to assist in showing the relationship media has with politics as opposed to simply showing the nuances of the court hearing and is thus obsolete to my research.

Online opinion and discussion

By understanding the relationship that media has with the spiral of silence I can further amplify my understanding of whether my hypothesis is true or false, one of the theories that prove my hypothesis is the concept of ease of access to information via social media as stated by Shirky{3} resulting in the majority’s opinion being more vocally challenged as more people have access to the same information. In a research note by Micheal McDevitt, Spiro Kiousis, and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen discussing opinion in computer-mediated discussion{5}, the portrayal of muted citizens that cower under the public eye are less apparent and more difficult to reconcile with empirical data when looking at computer-mediated contexts such as a newsgroup and chatroom. Speculations have arisen, prompted by the innovation in interactive media, regarding the access to political information, the production of social capital as written by Putnam in a study conducted in 2000{6} as well as political efficacy. However, the research note brings forth the fact that the implications for opinion expression are yet to be explored as a possible function of the spiral of silence theory. Much can be addressed from this question, however, including one that relates to democracy; does the anonymity that comes from the use of social media forums allow citizens to express the views of the minority due to the liberation from social accountability? The research note suggests that computer-mediated discussion promotes the concept of mediated expression of opinion and states that it has narrowed its views on the implication of the spiral of silence dynamic as opposed to the broad gradual change of discussion in interpersonal relations.

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The note also provides 3 important assumptions that I have based my research upon in the context where all these conditions exist in terms of computer-mediated discussion:

  • Individuals must be motivated to actively survey the climate of opinion (, Noelle-Neumann, ).
  • Individuals must be able to accurately survey the climate of opinion (Shamir, Price & Allen, ).
  • Individuals must believe consciously or subconsciously that the majority has the power to impose negative sanctions on those with dissenting views (Scheufele et al., Oshagan, ).

Neumann stated that the essential meaning of public opinion is based on “the interaction between the inclinations, abilities, and convictions of the individual and the agreement of the many, to which the individual has to subordinate himself if he does not want to place himself in isolation outside society”.

This means that fear of isolation is thought to drive individuals to become reluctant and sensitive to the changes in the distribution of opinions differing or similar to their own. The notion of this fear, however, has been criticized for being hyperbolic but also for not acknowledging the competing motivations behind expressing an opinion.

When talking in contrast to the computer-mediated discussion, however, factors such as increased anonymity and physical distance cause a breakdown in etiquette, research on this phenomenon, now known by the term ‘flaming’, comes from the discussion having low involvement obligation, the factor that causes sensitivity on expressing opinions in an interpersonal mediated discussion.

Another reason for this breakdown in etiquette is the removal of the fear of social sanctions imposed by the majority. This is because, for social sanctions such as embarrassment in a social setting, the physical presence of others is required. Normative influence is also affected by non-verbal cues such as body language or eye contact. Because computer-mediated discussion alludes to many of these cues, users are less inclined to hold back opinions. In fact, computer mediation appears to comprise some of the conditions of anonymity with users becoming more emotional or impulsive in computer-mediated areas, this observation leads to another theory known as The online disinhibition effect{7} and is possibly a reason for expressing minority opinions.

This research has supported my hypothesis of the spiral of silence theory is broken down by online media and social media in general, research has shown the phenomenon known as flaming and provided an explanation as to possible reasons for the phenomenon existing as well as providing another theory to branch off that may explain the reason for users being more impulsive in the computer-mediated discussion by expressing a minority opinion. However, they have not researched the political climate in terms of social media meaning that I have not gained insight into a prime candidate for evidence regarding the spiral of silence dynamic in a more extreme and volatile sense. A member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, Kimberly Strassel wrote a book on “how the left is silencing free speech”{8}, called the Intimidation Game.

The intimidation game

Within the book, Strassel deconstructs modern-day left-wing politics in the US whilst also exposing a dark motive some possess, apparently including runner for presidency Hillary Clinton, in which the government amends the first amendment in order to put the federal government in charge of free speech. Many reviews have commended the book for its chilling but truthful depiction of such a goal whilst also keeping itself from demonizing an entire political ideology through biased representation or hyperbolic lexical choice.

Strassel’s book is similar to the works of Kirsten Powers in her book “The silencing”. Despite their similarities, there are stark contrasts between the two books even though they both talk about the first amendment. Powers describes how Americans are losing their first amendment rights whilst, Strassel describes how Freedom of speech has already been lost and is now in fact bought. The book goes into the multitude of ways that the far left had used to try and silence free speech using both federal agencies such as the IRS, FBI, DOJ, FEC, and in some cases the FDA as well as making such data available to the general public in order to intimidate members with opposing views into silence. Strassel also notes how Liberal state departments have refused to prosecute crimes committed by people with liberal beliefs whilst their courts misinterpret or fail to uphold the law with parties such as the TEA party being required to wait 5 years to wait for permission to speak.

The Intimidation game also references a method of attack through campaign finance laws by taking the source of money used by conservative organizations, which was then circumvented by the Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” ruling which prevented such methods of attack{9}. Though the content of these court orders is irrelevant to my own hypothesis they do help to show how the silencing of political opinion is circumvented through law.

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