A change in the climate: Online social capital and the spiral of silence
First Monday

A change in the climate: Online social capital and the spiral of silence by Kim Bartel Sheehan



Abstract
This study explores the connection between online social capital and the Spiral of Silence. Online social capital is an individual’s network of social connections, a network that enables and encourages social cooperation. The Spiral of Silence theory suggests that an opinion can become dominant if those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens them with isolation. A study of 550 individuals explored their willingness to speak up on an issue, and assessed whether they thought they held a majority or a minority opinion. This study compared both their bonding social capital (via homogeneous networks) and bridging social capital (via heterogeneous networks) to their willingness to speak up and their perceptions of whether others held their opinions. Regression analyses shows that bridging social capital is a key influencer in people’s willingness to speak up in social media and other online venues.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Methods
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The Internet provides individuals with opportunities to express opinions on different issues. It also provides opportunities for people to connect with people they may not encounter in the ‘real world’, perhaps changing the way they view the world. This study examines the current status of the Spiral of Silence: the theory that suggests that one opinion about an issue can be dominant if people who perceive their opinions to be in the minority will not voice their opinions in public forums.

This study explores people’s willingness to speak up in both online and off-line venues and whether one’s online social capital influences their willingness to speak up. Social capital is each individual’s resources that accrue from the various social networks that they build. If one has a strong network of people who hold a variety of opinions, then the Spiral of Silence may be avoided. In addition, the study also considers the role of topic salience, which recent studies of the Spiral of Silence have also included as a variable that can predict one’s willingness to voice a minority opinion.

 

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Literature review

The Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence theory argues that some public opinions become dominant in a society when those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not voice their opinion due to fear of social isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). The theory has been used to explain several major events in world history, including the rise of Nazi Germany and the United State’s participation in the 1991 Gulf War.

The Spiral of Silence begins when individuals decide not to state their opinions on social or moral issues because they fear rejection by their peers. Individuals’ fear of isolation causes people to find ways to avoid being isolated (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). This fear assumes that people can gauge what others in society think and feel about issues, using what Noelle-Neumann terms their ‘quasi-statistical sense’. In addition, individuals sense whether their own opinions are gaining or losing in popularity; when opinions are losing popularity, people are less likely to voice those opinions in public. The theory is based on individuals’ perceptions of what others believe; sometimes individuals’ assessments of their own social environment may not always be consistent with what is truly happening. Some individuals tend to always speak up, regardless of whether they hold the majority of minority opinion.

The media play a role in creating the Spiral of Silence. Depending on the size of their social sphere, individuals use different media to understand public opinions (Noelle-Neumann, 1984). The Spiral of Silence theory assumes that the media are consonant across media channels, that is, different media provide a consistent message on a social issue to individuals in a society. Thus, one’s media choices influence one’s quasi-statistical sense.

Since the original conception of the theory, numerous studies have examined the theoretical concepts in detail. Matthes, et al. (2010), in an attempt to assess whether the Spiral of Silence operated in similar ways across different cultures, suggested that people are not equally susceptible to the forces that initiate and sustain a Spiral of Silence for a given issue. They described fear of social isolation (FSI) as a stable personality trait that is not bound to specific situations: even if someone holds a majority view, their fear of social isolation may inhibit them to speak up in public. Hayes, et al. (2005) linked FSI to one’s willingness to self-censor (WTSC), describing this construct as “a person’s general reticence to express an opinion to an audience that is likely to disagree” [1]. They theorized that self-censorship is different from simple opinion expression inhibition, as the former requires an active consideration of the opinion climate to determine that one’s opinion is a minority opinion. Matthes, et al. (2012) suggested that across cultures, people differ in both their FSI and their WTSC. In their cross-cultural research, they found evidence a correlation between FSI and WTSC in some countries, yet no such correlation in others. They argue that individuals in some collectivistic countries have no fear of social isolation, yet these may produce individuals higher in WTSC because such countries have a limited freedom of opinion expression.

The salience of an issue to an individual may also influence whether someone will speak out. A study in Singapore (Willnat, et al., 2002) compared individuals’ propensity to speak up about two different issues: interracial marriage and gay rights. On interracial marriage, the more salient the issue, the more the individual was likely to speak out, although those who thought that they did not hold the majority opinion were somewhat less likely. On gay rights, the perception that others held a different opinion was positively related to one’s outspokenness. Individuals’ perceptions of the dominant opinion alone were weak predictors, meaning that factors other than the quasi-statistical sense were influential in an individual’s decision to speak out.

Glynn, et al. (1997) examined 17 studies conducted in six different countries and showed that while the correlation between perceptions of opinion support and willingness to speak out was positive, the average correlation was relatively small (r=.054). Arguably, the cultural climate is changing and the reasons why individuals chose to speak out and not speak out may be changing with it, and so reevaluating the Spiral of Silence is appropriate.

The Spiral of Silence in the twenty-first century

The media climate has changed significantly since Noelle-Neumann’s original conception. Schultz and Roessler (2012) argued that one of Noelle-Neumann’s strongest arguments for the existence of the Spiral of Silence was the consonance of the news reporting. Mass media in the 1970s, primarily radio, TV, newspaper and magazines, presented similar stories and viewpoints so individuals tended to perceive the same opinion climate from all their media sources (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). Today, media choices have expanded and diversified in most Western countries (Maurer and Reinemann, 2006). Individuals can find media choices focused on special interests available through some combination of cable, satellite and digital television Additionally, a banquet of media choices is available online, including mainstream media Web sites, online-only news sites, and blogs from companies and individuals (Schultz and Roessler, 2012). Zuercher (2009) suggested the theory does not take into account the increase in information sources both online and off-line, as well as the number of interpersonal sources (such as social networking sites) that could influence one’s perception of public opinion. As a result of this inflow of information from a variety of sources, it is possible that the media is less consonant and that individuals’ quasi-statistical sense may be weaker than when the theory was originally conceived.

Interactivity may affect whether individuals chose to speak up if they hold minority opinions (Schultz and Roessler, 2012). On social media sites (such as Facebook and Twitter), in chat rooms, and in comments to blog posts, individuals can communicate with each other on topics of interest. People may use these interactions to draw conclusions regarding the opinion climate. Li (2007) found a positive relationship between an individual’s exposure to diverse opinions on the Internet and an individual’s likelihood to express deviant opinions in face to face situations, and also that people were more likely to express deviant opinions in person than online.

Schultz and Roessler (2012) suggested that social media sites are more important than political forums and blogs are less important for opinion formation. They found individuals participating in more focused online communities like political forums have to first be interested in the subject in order to find the site and then to participate in the discussions. These political forums can have a potential influence as soon as opinion leaders start using them, as such messages are often co-opted by the traditional news media that serve as agenda setters (Tomaszeski, et al., 2009).

Zuercher (2009) argued that online communication reduces the fear of isolation because of the availability of anonymous commenting in many online venues. Schultz and Roessler (2012) suggested that anonymous commenting enriches the diversity of opinions and may reduce fear of isolation in the online environment. Fear of isolation may also be reduced because the Internet has what Amichai-Hamburger and McKenna (2006) call a status-leveling effect, since “... existing internal status does not carry as much weight and does not affect the behavior of the group members to such an extent. Underlings are more likely to speak up, to speak ‘out of turn,’ and to speak their mind” [2].

Zuercher (2009) argued that online media are so fragmented that people struggle with assessing media consonance. While fragmentation may allow individuals to have access to broader range of opinions, everyone may not take advantage of the diversity of opinions. Pariser (2011) suggested that individuals create filter bubbles, cultural and ideological bubbles of information derived from the algorithms of search engines and other proprietary algorithms. The information pushed to people contains content similar to the content that they have been looking at before. Such bubbles provide information that individuals are likely to be interested in, but that also limit users’ ability to take advantage of the online diversity since they rarely see information that disagrees with their viewpoints.

Individuals’ perception of the climate of public opinion today may rely more on the individual’s own opinions than before (Scheufele, 2008). Dvir-Gvirsman (2012) studied the idea of projection, that is, individuals’ tendency to rely on their own opinions when estimating public opinions. She found that many use projection, and while media use and political knowledge contribute to a more accurate perception of true public opinion, these factors did not reduce people’s use of projection.

Social capital

Clearly, the Internet can help individuals to connect with a wide range of people and a variety of opinions. One way to assess how these connections work is by examining social capital. Social capital, according to Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) is “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” [3]. Putnam (2000) defined social capital as both a social network and its associated norms of reciprocity.

Social capital provides many benefits, including the efficient functioning of modern economies (Kenworthy, 1997), a stable liberal democracy (Fukuyama, 2001), and optimism and satisfaction with life (Narayan and Cassidy, 2001). Greater social capital increases individuals’ commitment to a community and, as a result, the ability of that community to mobilize collective actions (Helliwell and Putnam, 2004) and allows a person to draw on resources such as information and support from other members of the networks to which he or she belongs (Paxton, 1999).

Putnam (2000) identified two different types of social capital, bridging and bonding, which derive from different norms and networks. The two are related but not equivalent. Bridging social capital is inclusive, and occurs when individuals from different backgrounds make connections between social networks. This is related to what Granovetter (1973) referred to as weak ties: loose connections among people that provide information and perspective but limited personal support. Putnam (2000) argued that this can broaden social horizons. Bonding social capital is more exclusive, occurring among strongly tied individuals such as family and close friends, and reflects emotional support. Both bridging and bonding social capital can be used to help people understand the public opinion climate, and this study will examine whether online social capital is a factor in individuals’ willingness to speak out.

Williams (2006) conceptualized and validated scales for measuring bridging and bonding social capital in the online context. Distinct scales for measuring the online context are important since the creation of social capital may work differently online and off-line. Specifically, the Internet allows individuals to form and maintain numerous ‘weak tie’ networks. As a result, some individuals may have more access to people online who are less like them than they do off-line. This bonding social capital may help reduce filter bubbles and expose individuals to a broader range of opinions about issues. Perhaps these relationships can minimize fear of isolation and encourage people to speak up about issues in situations where others may not hold their opinions.

Ellison, et al. (2007) argued that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter play an important role in forming and maintaining both bridging and bonding social capital. Kobayashi (2010), in a study of an online gaming community, indicated that the diverse composition of online communities causally enhance social tolerance toward community members, and can also be generalized to off-line settings. Online communities create bridging social capital by gathering these diverse populations around a shared context.

However, other research questions whether social networks can create social capital. Stefanone, et al. (2012) asked a group of Facebook users to send out requests for instrumental help (e.g., help with a class project) to their Facebook friends. The vast majority of requests went unanswered: on average, 40 percent of an individuals’ strong tie connections and 10 percent of their weak tie connections responded to the query. Perceived social capital did not create or explain enacted support. The authors argued that social media is a good way to disseminate information but not a good way to mobilize action.

Research on Spiral of Silence and social capital

Social capital can stimulate norms of trust and reciprocity that may in turn influence whether individuals are willing to express their minority opinions on an issue. In assessing the climate of public opinions, individuals use not only their quasi-statistical sense but they also rely on their own reference groups. Willingness to express opinions can relate to whether their opinions align with the reference groups (Oshagan, 1996). Understanding social capital can help to determine whether these reference groups, consisting of either strong ties (close friends and family) or weak ties influence their wiliness to speak out.

Dalisay, et al. (2012) examined the role of social capital on the Spiral of Silence process by surveying citizens in Guam. They explored civic engagement, neighborliness and trust, traditional measurements of social capital in the off-line environment. Civic engagement is membership in formal community groups and participation in social activities. Trust is a type of generalized reciprocity that facilitates participation in networks. Neighborliness is a notion of the types of behaviors that people who live close to each other participate in, often informally. Their study found that an individuals’ civic engagement had a direct effect on their wiliness to express opinions. They also found that neighborliness and trust had positive effects on perceived support for one’s opinion. Neighborliness and trust are types of social capital related to willingness to express opinions. Trust facilitates collective action for common purposes. These ties foster participation in groups that enable people to share opinions.

Dalisay, et al. (2012) found that people tend to join groups in their real world communities when they believed people in the groups have a set of values similar to theirs. As people increase social capital, they perceive that those around them share their opinions on important issues, and thus are more likely to speak up about those issues.

Online people can easily join a range of groups and connect with people who do not share their opinions, which may effect one’s perceptions on the public opinion climate. As much of the dialogue about social issues happens online, it is important to examine whether the Spiral of Silence can be in effect online. It is also unclear the degree to which online social capital can affect the Spiral of Silence and cause people to speak out about an issue even if they know they hold the minority opinion. To date, research has not examined online social capital and its influence on the Spiral of Silence. This exploratory study asks these research questions:

RQ1: Do people recognize that they are in the majority or the minority regarding opinions they hold? Is there evidence of projection among online users when using their quasi-statistical sense?

RQ2: Are people willing to speak up about opinions they hold in various venues, even when they perceive that they are in the minority?

RQ3: Does an individuals’ online social capital influence whether they will speak up? Are there other factors, such as topic salience, that might influence whether they speak up?

 

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Methods

A national survey of 550 people in the United States was undertaken to answer the research questions. We used Qualtrics version 11924 to design the Internet-based survey and manage its distribution and collection. The sampling frame used stratified sampling to ensure that people representing a range of viewpoints about important social issues of the day were included (in this study, respondents were asked about which party they voted for in the past election, and equal representations from republicans and democrats was collected).

The survey consisted of three sections. The first section included 20 statements associated with the bridging and bonding social capital scales (Williams, 2006) where respondents indicated their level of agreement to each statement. Cronbach’s alpha for the 10-item bridging social capital scale was .86 and for the 10-item bonding social capital scale was 84. Next, respondents were randomly assigned to respond to questions and statements about one of three issues of the day. They were asked their opinion on the issue, and whether they thought several groups of people (U.S. citizens, people they know online, and people at work or school) agreed with them about the issue. They were then asked about their willingness to speak up about the issue in several venues (at a community meeting, on Facebook, and in an online political forum). Respondents were asked several questions about issue salience adopted from Dalisay, et al. (2012), such as whether they attended to stories in TV and newspapers, and their interest and knowledge of the topic.

In selecting issues, Brossard, et al. (2007) suggested that selected issues must not have a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and must be timely. Glynn, et al. (1997) found the use of hypothetical situations did not provide a sound method for testing the Spiral of Silence theory. We selected three issues reported on by the Gallup Polls during the 18 months prior to the start of data collection. The three issues selected for this study were among those Gallup listed as ‘hot topics’, and the current study used wording identical to the Gallup poll wording. The three issues were:

  1. Immigration: What should America’s top priority be regarding illegal immigration? According to Gallup, the majority opinion is that the top priority should be dealing with immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally. The minority opinion is that the top priority should be to halt the flow of illegal immigrants.
  2. National Gas Tax: Should the U.S. government institute a 20 cent per gallon gas tax to improve roads and bridges? According to Gallup, the majority of citizens are against this tax.
  3. North Korea: Should the U.S. use military force to defend South Korea if that country is invaded by North Korea? According to Gallup, the majority of citizens agree that the U.S. should do this.

The final section of the survey included questions to collect demographic data about the respondents.

 

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Results

The Qualtrics panel delivered 550 usable responses, with individuals aged 18–85 responding from every state in the United States except seven (Alaska, Louisiana, New Media, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming). The states representing the largest number of responses were California (12 percent), Pennsylvania (nine percent), New York (nine percent), Florida (seven percent) and Ohio (five percent). These percentages are similar to percentages reported by the U.S. census (California: 12 percent, New York seven percent, Florida six percent, Pennsylvania four percent, Ohio four percent). Of the respondents, 16 percent had a high school degree, 28 percent had some college, 30 percent had a bachelor’s, and 21 percent had an advanced degree. The study population may be slightly more educated than the U.S. population as a whole. Of the group, 21 percent had a household income less than US$30,000 while 37 percent had an income more than US$60,000, similar to the recent U.S. census report.

The first research question asked whether people thought they are in the majority or the minority regarding opinions they hold. Table 1 presents a summary of the opinions and compares results to the Gallup poll results. For two of the issues studied (North Korea and the Gas Tax), the percentage of the sample holding majority and minority opinions were similar to the percentage of individuals holding those opinions in the Gallup poll. For immigration reform, the majority opinion of the respondents was actually the minority opinion of the Gallup poll; there was, however, a much higher percentage of ‘don’t know’ for this question among our respondent poll than among the Gallup respondents.

 

Summary of opinions

 

In examining perceptions of whether individuals believe hold the majority or minority opinion, the results show that most people either believed they held the majority opinion regardless of which opinion they held, or they were unsure. People rarely indicated that they held the minority opinion.

For each issue, the majority of people holding the majority opinion also believed they held the majority opinion (60 percent of those responding to statements about immigration reform, 60 percent of those responding to statements about the gas tax, and 57 percent of those responding to statements about North Korea). A small percentage of the groups holding the majority opinion believed they were in the minority (five percent for immigration reform, six percent for gas tax, and 11 percent for North Korea). About a third of respondents who held the majority opinion for all three issues didn’t know whether they held the majority or minority opinion.

A small percentage of the groups holding the minority opinion believed they were in the minority for two of the issues (eight percent for immigration reform and five percent for North Korea) although a third believed they were in the minority about the gas tax. At least half of people holding the minority opinion believed they held the majority opinion (67 percent of those responding to statements about immigration reform, 50 percent of those responding to statements about the gas tax, and 50 percent of those responding to statements about North Korea). About a fourth of the respondents who held the minority opinion about immigration reform did not know if they held the minority opinion or not; 18 percent of respondents to the gas tax and almost half of the respondents to North Korea did not know what the majority opinion was.

The second research question asked whether willingness to speak up was related to whether one held majority opinions. We provided a variety of venues where these opinions could be discussed, both online (on a social network like Facebook and in an online political forum) and off-line (at a community meeting and at work/school). Willingness to speak up was measured on a three-point scale (with one=not at all willing and three=very willing). For all three issues, about three-fourths of the respondents indicated they were somewhat or very willing to speak up, regardless of the venue.

Tables 2a, 2b and 2c present correlations for willingness to speak up in one of four venues and one’s feeling that they hold the majority opinion among either the majority of U.S. citizens or the majority of people one knows online. This helps identify whether people think their online networks are similar or different to the U.S. population as a whole.

 

Willingness to Speak Up about Immigration reform

 

 

Willingness to Speak Up about the Gas Tax

 

 

Willingness to Speak Up about North Korea

 

For immigration reform, there were significant correlations between perceptions that one held the majority opinion among U.S. citizens and among one’s online network and the willingness to speak up in three out of the four venues: at a community meeting (CM) and at a social media site (SM) and an online political forum (OPF). Willingness to speak up at school or work (SW) was positively correlated with perceptions that one held the majority opinion among people one knew online, but not among all U.S. citizens.

For the gas tax question, there were significant correlations between perceptions that one held the majority opinion among U.S. citizens and among one’s online network and the willingness to speak up in two out of the four venues: at an online social network (SM) and at school or work (SW). There were not significant correlations between perceptions of holding the minority opinion and willingness to speak up at a community meeting (CM) or an online political forum (OPF).

For the North Korea issue, there were significant correlations between perceptions that one held the majority opinion among U.S. citizens and among one’s online network and the willingness to speak up in three out of the four venues: at an online social network (SM), a community meeting (CM) and at school or work (SW) There were not significant correlations between willingness to speak up at an online political forum (OPF).

The third research questions asks whether an individual’s online social capital will influence their willingness to speak up, along with other factors, such as topic salience. Twelve different regression analyses were performed, focusing on willingness to speak up in each of the four different venues. These analyses are provided in Tables 3a and 3b (Immigration Reform), 4a and 4b (Gas Tax) and 5a and 5b (North Korea). At this point, we will examine trends in the analyses to answer whether online social capital and issue salience can predict one’s willingness to speak up in various venues.

 

Correlation Matrix for Immigration Reform

 

 

Regression Analysis: Willingness To Speak Out On Immigration Reform

 

 

Correlation Matrix for Gas Tax

 

 

Regression Analysis: Willingness To Speak Out On The Gas Tax

 

 

Correlation Matrix for North Korea

 

 

Willingness to Speak Out on North Korea

 

Table 3a shows that there is a high level of correlation between bridging social capital (BRSC) and bonding social capital (BOSC), perceptions that the individual shares their opinion with most of the people in the United States (USAGREE), and with the people they know online (OLAGREE). There is also a significant correlation between BRSC and people’s interest in the topic as indicated by the fact that they read articles about the issue in the newspaper (NSP). Similarly, there are correlations between BOSC and OLAGREE, as well as people’s interest in the topic as indicated by the fact that they watch TV news stories about the topic (TV).

Table 3b indicates that one’s willingness to speak up about immigration reform varied by venue. BRSC was a significant predictor of willingness to speak up in both online venues, social media (SM) and an online political forum (OPF). For the online political forum, willingness to speak up was also influenced by OLAGREE and the individual’s perception that they were knowledgeable about the topic (KNOWTOP). Also in the online political forum, BOSC was a predictor but in a negative direction, meaning the higher the level of bonding social capital, the less likely someone was willing to speak up in an online political forum.

For both ‘off-line’ venues of the community meeting (CM) and school or work (SW), willingness to speak up was predicted by OLAGREE. For the community meeting, BOSC also was a predictor but in a negative direction. What is key among all these analyses is that n some way, one’s online activity influences willingness to speak up in both online and off-line forums.

Table 4a shows that there is a high level of correlation between bridging social capital (BRSC) and bonding social capital (BOSC), KNOWTOP, NSP and TV. There are correlations between BOSC and both USAGREE and OLAGREE, as well as with TV and KNOWTOP.

In terms of willingness to speak up about the gas tax (Table 4b), BRSC was a significant predictor for all four venues. NSP was also a significant predictor for the off-line venues, and OLAGREE was a significant predictor for speaking up at school or work.

For the Korea issue, Table 5a shows that there is a high level of correlation between bridging social capital (BRSC) and BOSC, USAGREE, OLAGREE, KNOWTOP, NSP and one’s interest in the topic (INTTOP). There are correlations between BOSC and OLAGREE, INTOP, KNOWTOP, NSP and TV.

In terms of willingness to speak up about North Korea (Table 5b), BRSC was the only predictor for both online venues. BOSC was negatively correlated with the two off-line venues, and KNOWTOP was a predictor for speaking up at school or work.

When looking at trends in terms of what influences where people are likely to speak out, it can be noted that one’s willingness to speak up in a social media venue, regardless of the topic, is predicted only by one’s level of bridging social capital. Bridging social capital is also a significant predictor for willingness to speak up in an online political forum, and the only predictor for willingness to speak up about the gas tax and North Korea in those venues.

Whenever bonding social capital was a significant predictor, there was a negative relationship, meaning the lower the level of bonding social capital (homogeneous networks), the more likely one would speak up. In 11 of the 12 venues, some type of online social capital was seen as a significant predictor of willingness to speak up.

Another trend seen among these analyses was that the factors provided did not have a high explanatory power, as the adjusted r squared numbers ranged from a low of .169 to a high of .254. Therefore, other predictor variables unidentified in this study might produce a regression formula with a higher explanatory power.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

This study examined people’s willingness to speak up about important issues of the day to see if that willingness is influences by one’s social capital and interest in the issue. It also examined whether Noelle-Neumann’s (1984) concept of people’s quasi-statistical sense (allowing us to know whether our opinions are in the majority and minority of society) is relevant in the Internet age.

In general, people are willing to speak up about issues, with about 75 percent of respondents indicating that they are somewhat or very willing to speak up regardless of the issue. In contrast to Li’s (2007) findings, willingness to speak up was consistent regardless of whether the opportunity was face-to-face or online. One interesting finding is that public opinions can be fluid, not fixed. For the three issues studied, only one issue (North Korea) presented public opinions align with the most recent Gallup poll studying the issue. For the Gas Tax issue, a larger percentage of respondents expressed the majority opinion in this study than in the Gallup poll, and for Immigration Reform issue, the majority/minority opinions were reversed. A fluid public opinion may suggest it is challenging for people to trust their quasi-statistical sense and know whether their opinions are in the majority or minority. This is also seen in the finding that a large percentage of people believe their opinion is the dominant opinion (even when it is not) This could suggest that some of these people are living in a ‘filter bubble’, only accessing information that matches their own opinion. However, a fairly large percentage indicated that they do not know if their opinion is in the majority or the minority. This might be because these people are exposed to a variety of opinions online, altering their quasi-statistical sense.

In terms of the key question to this study: online social capital will influence willingness to speak up on several topics and in online values. It can also influence willingness to speak up in certain cases in off-line venues. Bridging social capital is the only predictor for speaking up on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This could reflect the high amount of social media usage among Americans today, allowing people to find and connect with a range of people and attend to a range of opinion. Building these strong ties among what would previously be considered weak ties can increase feelings of comfort about speaking up, regardless of one’s opinion on an issue.

Finally, there is mixed information about the role of topic salience in influencing whether someone will speak out or not. Depending on the topic, issue salience correlates with bridging and bonding social capital, which could suggest that interactions with one’s online community may influence what an individual considers an important topic. Additionally, some level of topic salience was a significant predictor of speaking up in an online political forum. This confirms Schultz and Roessler’s (2012) observation of people needing some level of interest to find and participate in these forums.

Future research should examine whether people think the media is consonant or not in order to better understand where they are getting their opinions from in their various networks. Also, a weakness of this study is that the regression models did not provide very robust explanations of the phenomenon of willingness to speak up. Future research could specifically measure an individual’s fear of isolation, which was not explicitly addressed (although one item in the bridging social capital scale — the item “When I feel lonely, there are several people online/off-line I can talk to” — captures the sentiment). Looking at this specifically, though, might share some insight on why people are willingness to speak up and perhaps provides a more robust model. Other factors that might influence willingness to speak up might also be investigated and added to try to achieve a more robust explanation in the model.

Regardless, this study suggests that the Internet is likely to have had a positive influence over ending the Spiral of Silence, especially in online venues. This is a positive commentary on people’s abilities to share ideas and opinions in a digital venue and the openness of the Internet as an interactive communication channel that supports these types of interactions. End of article

 

About the author

Kim Bartel Sheehan is a Professor and Director of the Master’s Program in Strategic Communication and the Undergraduate Honors Program at the School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Oregon.
E-mail: ksheehan [at] uoregon [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Hayes, et al., 2005, p. 319.

2. Amichai-Hamburger and McKenna, 2006, p. 29.

3. Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, p. 14.

 

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Editorial history

Received 9 June 2014; accepted 7 May 2015.


Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Kim Bartel Sheehan.

A change in the climate: Online social capital and the spiral of silence
by Kim Bartel Sheehan.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 5 - 4 May 2015
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5414/4468
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i5.5414





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