Survey finds social media users keep opinions quiet

People with social media accounts on sites such as Facebook and Twitter are less likely to air their thoughts about controversial issues even when they're offline, according to a new survey.

The Pew Research Center study released on Tuesday found that social media users experience the “spiral of silence” — a term describing people’s tendency not to speak up about policy issues if they think others won’t agree with them — more than people not on social media. At least when it comes to surveillance at the National Security Agency (NSA).

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“The results of our analyses show that, even holding other factors such as age constant, social media users are less likely than others to say they would join a discussion about the Snowden-NSA revelations,” Pew researchers said.

That goes against a common conception that many people use social media sites differently than in-person communication and are more likely to post things online that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face. The findings also show that fear of criticism from other online users can influence people even when they’re not online.

In the study, Pew surveyed 1,801 adults about whether they talked about government surveillance under a variety of situations.

Just 43 percent of people said they would be “very willing” or “somewhat willing” to discuss the issue on Facebook, and only 41 percent said the same thing about Twitter.

People who use Facebook multiple times per day were half as likely to voice their opinions about NSA leaker Edward Snowden in person around friends at a restaurant. The average Twitter user is 0.24 times less likely to share his opinions with work colleagues than another Internet user not on Twitter.

“Those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views on the Snowden-NSA story in many circumstances — in social media and in face-to-face encounters,” the researchers said.

Fear of alienating friends and future bosses may prevent people from sharing online, the polling organization speculated. Concerns about online bullying or ostracism may have spilled over into in-person interactions, it added, and “this might increase the perceived risk of opinion sharing in other settings.”

Using the NSA as a topic to gauge social media discussions may have also skewed the results, Pew said. A survey earlier this year showed that nearly half of the adults polled said they were giving second thoughts to their online behavior because of the spy agency’s snooping.