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How Social Media Silences Debate

The Internet might be a useful tool for activists and organizers, in episodes from the Arab Spring to the Ice Bucket Challenge. But over all, it has diminished rather than enhanced political participation, according to new data.

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.

The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.

The study asked participants about the revelations of government spying made by Edward Snowden, a widely discussed issue on which Americans were almost equally divided.CreditFrederick Florin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“People who use social media are finding new ways to engage politically, but there’s a big difference between political participation and deliberation,” said Keith N. Hampton, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers and an author of the study. “People are less likely to express opinions and to be exposed to the other side, and that’s exposure we’d like to see in a democracy.”

The researchers set out to investigate the effect of the Internet on the so-called spiral of silence, a theory that people are less likely to express their views if they believe they differ from those of their friends, family and colleagues. The Internet, many people thought, would do away with that notion because it connects more heterogeneous people and gives even minority voices a bullhorn.

Instead, the researchers found, the Internet reflects the offline world, where people have always gravitated toward like-minded friends and shied away from expressing divergent opinions. (There is a reason for the old rule to avoid religion or politics at the dinner table.)

And in some ways, the Internet has deepened that divide. It makes it easy for people to read only news and opinions from people they agree with. In many cases, people don’t even make that choice for themselves. Last week, Twitter said it would begin showing people tweets even from people they don’t follow if enough other people they follow favorite them. On Monday, Facebook said it would hide stories with certain types of headlines in the news feed. Meanwhile, harassment from online bullies who attack people who express opinions has become a vexing problem for social media sites and their users.

Humans are acutely attuned to the approval of others, constantly reading cues to judge whether people agree with them, the researchers said. Active social media users get many more of these cues — like status updates, news stories people choose to share and photos of how they spend their days — and so they become less likely to speak up.

For the study, researchers asked people about the revelations of National Security Agency surveillance by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a topic on which Americans were almost evenly divided.

Most people surveyed said they would be willing to discuss government surveillance at dinner with family or friends, at a community meeting or at work. The only two settings where most people said they would not discuss it were Facebook and Twitter. And people who use Facebook a few times a day were half as likely as others to say they would voice an opinion about it in a real-world conversation with friends.

Yet if Facebook users thought their Facebook friends agreed with their position on the issue, they were 1.9 times more likely to join a discussion there. And people with fervent views, either in favor of or against government spying, were 2.4 times more likely to say they would join a conversation about it on Facebook. Interestingly, those with less education were more likely to speak up on Facebook, while those with more education were more likely to be silent on Facebook yet express their opinion in a group of family or friends.

The study also found that for all the discussion of social media becoming the place where people find and discuss news, most people said they got information about the N.S.A. revelations from TV and radio, while Facebook and Twitter were the least likely to be news sources.

These findings are limited because the researchers studied a single news event. But consider another recent controversial public affairs story that people discussed online — the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Of the posts you read on Twitter and Facebook from people you know, how many were in line with your point of view and how many were divergent, and how likely were you to speak up?


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