Tag Archives: political polarization

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”