Tag Archives: mass communication

The Spiral of Silence Theory

DISCLAIMER: The following is graduate student work. I’m uploading it after grading from the Professor but no corrections were made.


The Spiral of Silence Theory

In 1963, Bernard Cohen identified a mass media phenomenon called agenda-setting, a theory which posits that the media has an influence over what topics people think are important even if it has limited control over the content of those thoughts (Baran and Davis 264). Research in 1972 by Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald Shaw appeared to confirm the theory while later researchers expanded on the nature of agenda-setting and amount of interchange between the media and the intended audience (Baran and Davis 264-268). Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann originated the spiral-of-silence theory which argues that people will be more reluctant to express their views if they believe those views are in the minority. This self-censorship results in views that are perceived as less popular gradually disappearing from public debate (Baran and Davis 268).

In 1973, Noelle-Neumann examined what caused the media to possess this agenda-setting power. In her view, one factor is that the media is readily available for consumption. Another reason is that there is a cumulative effect – the messages cross content formats and types of media and are repeated over time. Thirdly, there is a lack of diversity among the opinions of journalists that tends to lead to homogeneity of topics presented to the public (Baran and Davis 268-269). Other researchers have continued to criticize, test and analyze the spiral of silence theory (Baran and Davis 269).

During the 20th Century, information tended to flow in a top-down manner from the elites to the masses. In the present time, we still use legacy media such as printed materials and electronic media. The category of actors that would have relied on such “old media” to distribute their messages, such as activist groups, governments, organizations and companies, are still using those legacy channels along with the newer decentralized web-based platforms. Additionally, we are producing user-generated content in the form of blogs and social media posts that compete for time and attention alongside the more elite content sources (Poulakidakos 373). The line between production and consumption has been considerably blurred (Poulakidakos 377).

Individual media users make decisions to determine when it is safe or desirable to express an opinion in the public sphere (Poulakidakos 374). Users do monitor whether their opinion is in the majority or minority and take the effect on their online and real-life relationships into consideration before deciding what to share (Poulakidakos 374). A 2011 study by Andrew Hayes and associates examined the effect of opinion polls and found that they do have a greater influence on people who suffer more fear of social isolation (Baran and Davis 269). There is a tendency for some individuals polled to tell the researchers what they think they want to hear rather than their true opinion (Gearhart and Zhgang 38). This behavior suggests that some people who think they are conforming to their fellow citizens to gain social acceptance are really conforming to the perceived opinions of the poll takers instead.

What factors make people more willing to take the risk of expressing their opinion? Awareness of a wider variety of opinions helps – with more diverse points of view available for consumption, there is less fear of social exclusion for expressing an opinion, helping to break the spiral of silence effect (Poulakidakos 375). Minority opinion holders are more willing to speak out on issues that they hold very firmly and believe are of high importance (Gearhart and Zhgang 39). People are more willing to express their true opinions in forums where they are not required to reveal their real-life identity (Gearhart and Zhgang 39). Less popular opinions are more likely to be expressed when people perceive that their view is gaining momentum (Gearhart and Zhgang 48).

Research by Gerarhart and Zhang shows that the perception that the media is in line with the user’s opinions has only a limited effect on the willingness of people to post truthfully about their thoughts. The perceived opinion of other members of the person’s nation had very little effect (Gearhart and Zhgang 44-46). In other words, the opinions of real-life friends and family carry a lot more weight with individuals than the media or the general public (Gearhart and Zhgang 50).

Even if the intended effect is not very significant, some appear to feel that any advantage is worth pursuing when the stakes are high, such as they are in the case of a major election. It is estimated that 1.4 billion USD was spent on digital advertising in the 2016 US Presidential election (Madrigal). A Pew research study shows that with over a year to go before the next Presidential election, 46% of social media users are already fatigued by the amount of political content they are exposed to (Anderson and Quinn). Our current culture is increasingly tolerant of incivility and some of the political content and behavior goes beyond mere propaganda, taking the form of online shaming, bullying and offline terrorism. Vitriol is not only directed at candidates but also their supporters (Gordon). On our own Webster University Campus in 2019, wearing a candidate’s t-shirt or having a candidate’s bumper sticker on a car has resulted in attempted property damage, vituperative verbal insults, and physical assault (Farrah). It is possible to be attacked even when not engaging in public political speech based solely on identity (Gordon). In 2015, a man was allegedly beaten on public transportation in St. Louis for declining to state a political opinion when asked (Associated Press). The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2016 that there were 10 active hate groups in the St. Louis area that “target others based on perceived membership in a class of people” (Moffit).

Studies cited earlier in this paper have found that the opinion climate in a particular environment does have some effect on open opinion expression. In the case of political views, can the majority consensus in a social media platform, such as Facebook, accurately predict voting behavior? According to a study by Mihee Kim, if an individual is not strongly committed to a political point of view, not only is such a person unlikely to express an opinion in a hostile environment, that person is less likely to vote at all. People strongly partisan to a certain point of view were also less forthcoming with opinions in a hostile environment, but rather than reducing political participation in the real world as the less committed did, they increased their activities in a direction opposite of what they perceived as the majority view (Kim 700). As a result, those actors attempting to sway voters in their preferred political direction by making it seem as though the voters’ own opinions are unpopular are likely to get the opposite outcome than was intended.

The nature of new media results in users having more choices of what content to consume and more individualized control over what they prefer to consume (Poulakidakos 374). If our nation has lost its’ tolerance for the open debate that allows ideas to be heard and judged on their merits, then we will continue to make important decisions about the future of our country with only the opinions from our own self-selected sphere of influence to guide us (Poulakidakos 374).

Works Cited

Anderson, Monica and Dennis Quinn. “46% of U.S. social media users say they are ‘worn out’ by political posts and discussions.” Pew Research Center, 2019, www.pewresearch.org/…/46-of-u-s-social-media-users…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Associated Press. “FBI investigates possible hate crime cases in St. Louis.” CBS Interactive Inc., 2015, www.cbsnews.com/…/fbi-begins-investigations-into…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Farrah, Kristen. “Republicans fear prejudice on campus.” Webster Journal, 2019, websterjournal.com/…/republicans-fear-prejudice-on…/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Gearhart, Sherice, and Weiwu Zhang. “Same Spiral, Different Day? Testing the Spiral of Silence across Issue Types.” Communication Research, vol. 45, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 34-54. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0093650215616456. Accessed 2 October 2019.

Gordon, Sherri. “How to Handle Political Bullying on Facebook.” Dotdash, 2019, www.verywellmind.com/how-to-handle-political-bullying…. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Kim, Mihee. “Facebook’s Spiral of Silence and Participation: The Role of Political Expression on Facebook and Partisan Strength in Political Participation.” CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, vol. 19, no. 12, Dec. 2016, pp. 696-702. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/cyber.2016.0137. Accessed 2 October 2019.

Madrigal, Alexis C. “What Facebook Did to American Democracy And why it was so hard to see it coming.” The Atlantic, 2017, www.theatlantic.com/…/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Moffit, Kelly. “10 hate groups in the St. Louis area: Defining and discussing what they stand for today.” St. Louis Public Radio, 2016, https://news.stlpublicradio.org/…/10-hate-groups-st…. Accessed 4 October 2019.

Poulakidakos, Stamatis, et al. “Post-Truth, Propaganda and the Transformation of the Spiral of Silence.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 14, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 367-382. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/macp.14.3.367_1. Accessed 2 October 2019.


Further reading: Here are some links to things I didn’t use or cite but might be interesting to read if you like this topic!

Democracy vs. Republic

The Power to Influence

12 Devious Tricks People Use To Manipulate You

Facebook Says it Doesn’t Try to Influence How People Vote

“Feminazis,” “libtards,” “snowflakes,” and “racists”: Trolling and the Spiral of Silence effect in women, LGBTQIA communities, and disability populations before and after the 2016 election

Effects of the “Spiral of Silence” in Digital Media

Spiral of Silence, and the Election Half of us Saw Coming

The only true winners of this election are trolls

A Comparison Between Emotional Abuse and Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”

How do we decide which media sources we can trust?

For our first test in Mass Communications class, we were asked to pick two questions from four offered and write at least a page on each. I’m going to take a risk and put these out there before they are graded because it might be a week before I get the graded test back and I don’t want to sit on this for that long. I’m spoiled and too used to the instant gratification that comes with self-publishing I suppose! If I decide to make any changes after grading I’ll indicate what I changed so you can see the corrections.


3. Explain Propaganda Theories. Contrast Lasswell’s Propaganda Theory and the Institute for Propaganda Analysis’ perspective. How do you see propaganda currently?

Mass society theorists have been fearful about the influence of mass media on average people since mass media first became prevalent (Baran and Davis 56). World Wars I and II along with the rise of totalitarian governments around the world caused researchers and critics to study how oppressive regimes used propaganda and to explore whether propaganda could be used to preserve and promote democracy instead (Baran and Davis 56). Behaviorism was an early theory that proposed that most human behavior could be explained by external conditioning rather than conscious choice (Baran and Davis 46-47). Freudianism was another theory that was also skeptical about the abilities of humans to use reason to control their actions. To Freudian thinkers, the rational mind was called the Ego. They believed media could be used to cause either the Id or the Superego to become dominant and undermine the Ego, resulting in people losing reasoning ability or giving up control to others (Baran and Davis 47-48).

Harold Lasswell was a political scientist who believed that the mental state of the subjects of propaganda was more important than the actual media content. In his view economic problems, war and conflict induced a form of psychosis that made people more susceptible to being manipulated (Baran and Davis 48). Democracies are designed so that it’s necessary to debate ideas in order for voters to decide which is the most rational. In his time as well as today, political discussions could become verbally rancorous and sometimes even escalate to physical violence. Lasswell believed it was too risky for people to engage in or witness such contention because it would induce psychosis that could lead to the adoption of subversive ideas (Baran and Davis 48). It would in his view be safer to expose people to benign propaganda crafted by a scientific technocracy rather than allow open debate (Baran and Davis 48-49). He advocated for long-term campaigns, possibly lasting months or years, that utilized every possible form of media to associate meanings with symbols that could be used to plant ideas into consumers that were more compatible with democracy (Baran and Davis 49).

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) was an interdisciplinary association that existed from 1937-1942. It’s purpose was to explore how the public could be educated to consume communication more rationally and become resistant to propaganda (Sproule 486). Today we would call this type of education media literacy (Baran and Davis 293). The IPA identified the “seven common propaganda devices”, which they termed “name calling, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonial, plain folks, card stacking and band wagon” (Sproule 488-489).

In the postwar period, other theories and research methods were developed that made the Institute for Propaganda Analysis’ research and list seem out of date among many researchers (Sproule 495-496). Nevertheless the ideas and terms that the the IPA introduced are still in use. A 1995 publication by the Institute of General Semantics advocates the use of the IPA’s concepts because they are non-technical and understandable by a wide variety of people (The Iconography of… 14). They created a set of symbols to illustrate and provided rhetorical examples with the symbols inserted to indicate which propaganda devices were used. A 2017 article in Psychology Today makes the case for continuing to use the Institute for Propaganda Analysis’ list along with an introduction that explains some of the history of propaganda and the IPA (Shpancer). A web site called Propaganda Critic was created during the early years of the World Wide Web. The project team for Propaganda Critic views itself as a successor to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (Delwiche and Herring). They retain many of the IPA’s terms and ideas on their Propaganda page while renaming and adding a few of their own (Delwiche).

It’s not new for the elite classes to be concerned every time a new communication technology is introduced (Baran and Davis 33). An example of a media literacy effort developed to combat the new challenges that come with new technology is DROG. DROG is a European interdisciplinary organization that produced an online game called Bad News in collaboration with Cambridge University. Players are cast in the role of an online propagandist and earn badges for Impersonation, Emotion, Polarization, Conspiracy, Discredit and Trolling. The goal of the game is to make media consumers more aware of the new propaganda techniques made possible by modern technology. Although the goals of DROG are very similar to organizations like the older IPA, they have created a new list with new terms that does more than just put a new label on old ideas (DROG).

 

4. As an example of Normative Theories, what are the major aspects of Social Responsibility Theory? What are the pros and cons? How do you see Social Responsibility in the future?

A normative theory explains “how a media system should be structured and operate in order to conform to or realize a set of ideal values” (Baran and Davis 16). Social responsibility theory has been the dominant normative theory in the United States from the reform era of the early 20th century up to the present time (Baran and Davis 60-61). Since our Bill of Rights contains Freedom of the Press, the government is limited in what it can do to regulate communication (Baran and Davis 64-65). The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, consisting of leaders in different fields, was convened and financed from 1942-1947 by the CEO of Time, Inc. to explore how the press could better serve the public and avoid excessive government regulation (Baran and Davis 72). The commissions findings were summarized in Social Responsibility Theory of the Press in 1956 (Baran and Davis 73).

According to the ideas in the report, journalists were encouraged to be professional by being competent, accurate and balanced in their coverage. Beyond just their own financial interests and that of their employers, they had a duty to also serve society. Serving society was thought to consist of abiding by the law and not inciting crime, violence or disorder. All members of society including minority groups would ideally be respected and have their interests and views represented (Baran and Davis 74).

Doubts abound about whether social responsibility theory is actually followed by media professionals. Even if attempts are made to follow the guidelines, the results are not always what were intended (Baran and Davis 74-75). There are many barriers to living up to the ideas in social responsibility theory. Often members of the media are reluctant to engage in policing each other because they fear undermining faith in the whole organization or profession (Baran and Davis 75). Standards are vague enough that members of the media can go pretty far in protecting their own interests (Baran and Davis 76). There are no professional licenses that allow journalists to practice and it’s difficult to define who is a journalist and who is not (Baran and Davis 76-77). The output that journalists produce is often the product of many hands and it’s difficult to know who is responsible and what the actual damages are from misdeeds (Baran and Davis 77).

Technology has democratized the ability to be a publisher and consumers can choose from a wider variety of information sources (Baran and Davis 82-83). The American public’s trust in the media had dropped to a historic low point by September 2016 according to a Gallup Poll (Americans’ Trust in…). If the media wants to regain more of the public’s trust it might benefit from some self-examination and self-regulation in the tradition of the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the press.

 

Works Cited

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Seventh Edition. CENGAGE Learning, 2015.

Delwiche, Aaron. “What Is Propaganda Analysis?” Propaganda Critic, 2018, https://propagandacritic.com/index.php/how-to-decode-propaganda/what-is-propaganda-analysis/. Accessed 24 September 2019.

Delwiche, Aaron and Mary Margaret Herring. “About This Site.” Propaganda Critic, 2018, propagandacritic.com/index.php/about-this-site/. Accessed 24 September 2019.

DROG. Bad News. 2018, http://getbadnews.com/. Accessed 24 September 2019.

Shpancer, Noam. “The Con of Propaganda.” Sussex Publishers, LLC, 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-therapy/201702/the-con-propaganda. Accessed 24 September 2019.

Sproule, J. Michael. “The Institute for Propaganda Analysis: Public Education in Argumentation, 1937-1942.” Conference Proceedings — National Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), Jan. 1983, pp. 486–499. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=20908496&site=ehost-live. Accessed 23 September 2019.

Swift, Art. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup, Inc. 2016, https://news.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx. Accessed 24 September 2019.

“The Iconography of Propaganda Analysis.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 52, no. 1, Spring 1995, p. 13. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=9503150320&site=ehost-live. Accessed 23 September 2019.


Interesting links I found but didn’t use:

No, I haven’t read all these (yet). But I want to save them where I can find them again and if you are interested in the topics I wrote about above you will probably find some good reading in there!

Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

Answers to Reader Questions on Our Brett Kavanaugh Essay

Information & Media Literacy: Skills Needed in Today’s World

Majority of U.S. adults think news media should not add interpretation to the facts

Public Attitudes Toward Computer Algorithms

What are the best examples of modern-day propaganda in the US? – a discussion that shows that some people have a good grasp of what propaganda is and some just define it as whatever they don’t agree with.

Partisans are divided on whether they associate the news media or Trump with ‘made-up’ news

Public Attitudes Toward Technology Companies

Public Insight Network

Handbook for Citizen Journalists

Digital Hydra: Security Implications of False Information Online

Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking

Emotional content to earn more attention

Time to call out the anti-GMO conspiracy theory

Bots, #StrongerIn, and #Brexit: Computational Propaganda during the UK-EU Referendum

Computational Propaganda Worldwide: Executive Summary

Causes and Consequences of Polarization*

Political Polarization & Media Habits

The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

Discrediting moves in political debates

https://www.lifewire.com/what-is-internet-trolling-3485891

Propaganda in the Digital Age

“Everything I Disagree With is #FakeNews”: Correlating Political Polarization and Spread of Misinformation