Spiral of silence
The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation. The assessment of one's social environment may not always correlate with reality.
- 1 Background
- 2 What is public opinion?
- 3 Elements linked to the process of public opinion
- 4 Three necessary conditions
- 5 The spiral model
- 6 Fear of isolation: conformity drives the spiral
- 7 Overcoming the silence
- 8 Current research
- 9 Cross cultural studies
- 10 Perceptions in the classroom
- 11 The Internet
- 12 Criticisms
- 13 See also
- 14 Notes
Introduced in 1974, the Spiral of Silence Theory […] explores hypotheses to determine why some groups remain silent while others are more vocal in forums of public disclosure.
It explains the formation of social norms at both the micro and macro level. "As a micro-theory, the spiral of silence examines opinion expression, controlling for people's predispositions – such as fear of isolation, and also demographic variables that have been shown to influence people's willingness to publicly express opinions on issues, such as agricultural biotechnology." The spiral of silence occurs on a macro level if more and more members of the perceived minority fall silent. This is when public perceptions of the opinion climate begin to shift. "In other words, a person's individual reluctance to express his or her opinion, simply based on perceptions of what everyone else thinks, has important implications at the social level." As one opinion gains the interest of the majority, the minority faces threat and fear of isolation from society. As the opinion gains momentum by the majority, the minority continues to be threatened and falls deeper into their silence. It continues until the minority no longer speaks out against it, and the opinion of the perceived majority ultimately becomes a social norm.
What is public opinion?
The term public opinion first emerged in France during the eighteenth century. The definition of public opinion has been debated over time. There has not been much progress in locking in one classification of the phrase public opinion. Hermann Oncken, a German historian, stated "Whoever desires to grasp and define the concept of public opinion will recognize quickly that he is dealing with a Proteus, a being that appears simultaneously in a thousand guises, both visible and as a phantom, impotent and surprisingly efficacious, which presents itself in innumerable transformations and is forever slipping through our fingers just as we believe we have a firm grip on it... That which floats and flows cannot be understood by being locked up in a formula... After all, when asked, everyone knows exactly what public opinion means." It was said to be a "fiction that belonged in a museum of the history of ideas; it could only be of historical interest."
In contradiction to that quote, the term public opinion seemed to not cease. During the early 1970s, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann was creating the theory of the spiral of silence. She was making an effort to clarify the 1965 finding of which voting intentions would not change but yet expectations that one side would win continued to increase. Noelle-Nuemann began to question if she was indeed grabbing a handle on what public opinion actually was. "The spiral of silence might be one of the forms in which public opinion appeared; it might be a process through which a new, youthful public opinion develops or whereby the transformed meaning of an old opinion spreads."
"It is cheap" was how American sociologist Edward Ross described public opinion in 1898. "The equation of 'public opinion' with 'ruling opinion' runs like a common thread through its many definitions. This speaks to the fact that something clinging to public opinion sets up conditions that move individuals to act, even against their own will." Many possible meanings and definitions of the term have been explored. Scholars have considered the content of public opinion, assumed to consist of public affairs issues. They have also considered whose opinion establishes public opinion, assumed to be persons of a community who are ready to express themselves responsibly about questions of public relevance. Scholars have also looked into the forms of public opinion, said to be those that are openly expressed and accessible; opinions that are made public, especially in the mass media. Controversy surrounding this term spiraled around both words combining to form the phrase.
Scholars have long argued over the concept of public within "public opinion". The use of "public" and "the public" betrays multiple competing meanings. There are three meanings of public. One meaning is the legal sense of public that focuses on openness. For example, a public place or path. A second meaning for the term emphasizes public rights. Lastly, within the phrase public opinion, public is said to have a related but different definition. Public, in this sense, could be characterized as social psychology. Scholars have marveled in amazement at the power public opinion has in making regulations, norms, and moral rules triumph over the individual self without ever troubling legislators, governments or courts for assistance.
"Common Opinion" is what the Scottish social philosopher David Hume called it in his 1739 published work. Agreement and a sense of the common is what lay behind the English and French "opinion." In researching the term opinion, meinung in German, researchers were led back to Plato's Republic. In Plato's Republic, a quote from Socrates conclude that opinion takes the middle position. Kant (1893, 411)considered opinion to be an "insufficient judgement, subjectively as well as objectively." How valuable opinion may be was left out; however, the fact that it is suggested to be unified agreement of a population, or segment of the population, was still considered.
Threat of isolation
Spiral of silence begins with the threat of isolation. In order to maintain structure in society, a "collective cohesion of its members must be constantly ensured by a sufficient level of agreement on values and goals."
Fear of isolation
The fear of isolation is the centrifugal force that accelerates the spiral of silence. Essentially, people fear becoming social isolates and thus take measures to avoid such a consequence. This assumption was primarily based on early experiments in conformity. People feel more comfortable by agreeing with opinions that they know are wrong instead of telling others their ideas.
Willingness to speak out
Individuals tend to publicly express their opinions and attitudes when they perceive their view to be dominant or on the rise. Conversely, when individuals perceive that their opinion is less popular or losing popularity, they are less likely to voice it in public. What one individual decides to do affects all of society around them. 
The Mass media play a large part in determining what the dominant opinion is, since our direct observation is limited to a small percentage of the population. The mass media have an enormous impact on how public opinion is portrayed, and can dramatically impact an individual's perception about where public opinion lies, whether or not that portrayal is factual.
The interaction of these five factors leads to a process of formation, change and reinforcement of public opinion. The tendency of the one to speak up and the other to be silent starts off a spiraling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the dominant one. Over time, these changing perceptions establish one opinion as predominant one and they change from the liquid state to a solid norm.
Further, Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as a dynamic process, in which predictions about public opinion become fact as mass media's coverage of the majority opinion becomes the status quo, and the minority becomes less likely to speak out.
Three necessary conditions
There are three necessary conditions for when the spiral of silence can occur.
- The issue must have a moral component to it
- There is a time factor or dynamic aspect of public opinion
- There is ubiquitous and consonant mass media coverage
The spiral model
- As social beings, most people are afraid of becoming isolated from their environment. They would like to be popular and respected.
- In order to avoid becoming isolated and in order not to lose popularity and esteem, people constantly observe their environment very closely. They try to find out which opinions and modes of behavior are prevalent, and which opinions and modes of behavior are becoming more popular. They behave and express themselves accordingly in public.
- We can distinguish between fields where the opinions and attitudes involved are static, and fields where those opinions and attitudes are subject to changes... Where opinions are relatively definite and static – for example, “customs” – one has to express or act according to this opinion in public or run the risk of becoming isolated. In contrast, where opinions are in flux, or disputed, the individual will try to find out which opinion he can express without becoming isolated.
- Individuals who, when observing their environments, notice that their own personal opinion is spreading and is taken over by others, will voice this opinion self-confidently in public. On the other hand, individuals who notice that their own opinions are losing ground will be inclined to adopt a more reserved attitude when expressing their opinions in public.
- It follows from this that, as the representatives of the first opinion talk quite a lot while the representatives of the second opinion remain silent, there is a definite influence on the environment: an opinion that is being reinforced in this way appears stronger than it really is, while an opinion suppressed as described will seem to be weaker than it is in reality.
- The result is a spiral process which prompts other individuals to perceive the changes in opinion and follow suit, until one opinion has become established as the prevailing attitude while the other opinion will be pushed back and rejected by everybody with the exception of the hard core that nevertheless sticks to that opinion.
Fear of isolation: conformity drives the spiral
Noelle-Neumann asserts that the fear of being in isolation is what initiates the spiral. People have a tendency to conform as demonstrated by psychologist Solomon Asch.
Overcoming the silence
The theory explains a vocal minority (the complement of the silent majority) by stating that people who are highly educated, or who have greater affluence, and the few other cavalier individuals who do not fear isolation, are likely to speak out regardless of public opinion. It further states that this minority is a necessary factor of change while the compliant majority is a necessary factor of stability, with both being a product of evolution. There is a vocal minority, which remains at the top of the spiral in defiance of threats of isolation. This theory calls these vocal minorities the hardcore nonconformist or the avant-garde. Hardcore nonconformists are "people who have already been rejected for their beliefs and have nothing to lose by speaking out." While the avant-garde are "the intellectuals, artists, and reformers in the isolated minority who speak out because they are convinced they are ahead of the times."
The spiral of silence tends to be the outcome of something controversial and political in nature. For that reason most current research focuses on hot-button[clarification needed] social issues such as smoking, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001.Shanahan Yang Scheufele It focuses mainly on current events, and can indicate shifts in societal norms and value structures. The theory seems valid when examining westernized cultures, but studies have failed to take into account cross-cultural differences that may affect one's willingness to speak out. Research has also started looking more into individual differences—that some people more than others are inclined to use cues about the opinion climate when deciding whether to speak out.
Cross cultural studies
There has been little research done to show the impact of cultural variation on an individual's likeliness to speak out in terms of the Spiral of Silence. However, recent improvements in this field have been shown.
The United States and Taiwan
A Cross Cultural Test of the Spiral of Silence by Huiping Huang analyzes the results of a telephone survey done in Taiwan and the United States. The hypotheses tested were the beliefs that the United States is an "individualistic" society, while Taiwan is a "collectivist" society. This suggested that the Spiral of Silence is less likely to be activated in the United States, because individuals are more likely to put emphasis on their personal goals. They put the "I" identity over the "we" identity, and strive for personal success. Therefore, it was hypothesized that they would be more likely to speak out, regardless of if they are in the minority. On the other hand, it was predicted that individuals in Taiwan put more emphasis on the collective goal, so they would conform to the majority influence in hopes of avoiding tension and conflict. The study also tested the effect of motives, including self-efficacy and self-assurance.
Telephone surveys were conducted; the citizens of the United States were questioned in regards to American involvement in Somalia, and the citizens of Taiwan about the possibility of a direct presidential election. Both issues focused on politics and human rights, and were therefore comparable. Respondents were asked to choose "favor," "neutral" or "oppose" in regards to the categories of themselves, family and friends, the media, society, and society in the future about the given issue. Measurements were also taken regarding the individualism and collectivism constructs, and the "motives of not expressing opinion" based on a 1–10 and 1–5 scale respectively, in approval of given statements.
Results showed support for the original hypothesis. Overall, Americans were more likely to speak out than Taiwanese. Being incongruous with the majority lessened the motivation of the Taiwanese to speak out (and they had a higher collectivist score), but had little effect on the Americans. In Taiwan, future support and belief of society played a large role in likeliness to voice an opinion, and support that the activation of the Spiral of Silence is in effect. In the United States, it was hypothesized that because they were more individualistic, they would be more likely to speak out if in the minority, or incongruous group. However, this was not true, but Huang suggests that perhaps the issue chosen was not directly prevalent, and therefore, they found it "unnecessary to voice their objections to the majority opinion." Lack of self-efficacy led to lack of speaking out in both countries.
Basque Nationalism and the Spiral of Silence is an article by Spencer and Croucher that analyzes the public perception of ETA in Spain and France. The Basque nation is an "ethno-linguistic minority group" that is not entirely embraced as part of the Spanish nation. ETA is a group that preaches a violent resistance to everything Spanish, which are nationally viewed as acts of terrorism.
This study was conducted in a similar way as above, with Basque individuals from Spain and France being questioned about their support of ETA. They were asked questions such as "How likely would you be to enter into a conversation with a stranger on a train about ETA?" Taken into consideration were the cultural differences of the two different regions in which the ETA existed.
The results supported the theory of the Spiral of Silence. While there was highly unfavorable opinion of the violent group, there was a lack of an outcry to stop it. Individuals claimed that they were more likely to voice their opinions to non-Basques, suggesting that they have a "fear of isolation" in regards to fellow Basques. Furthermore, the Spanish individuals questioned were more likely to be silent because of their greater proximity to the violent acts.
Perceptions in the classroom
One study, by Henson and Denker, “investigates perceptions of silencing behaviors, political affiliation, and political differences as correlates to perceptions of university classroom climates and communication behaviors.” They look at whether students' view of the classroom changes whether they perceive the instructor and other classmates with a different political affiliation, with the instructor and other classmates communicate using silencing behaviors. The article stated that little has been investigated into student-teacher interactions in the classroom, and how the students are influenced. The goal of the article was to “determine how political ideas are expressed in the university classrooms, and thus, assess the influence of classroom communication on the perceptions of political tolerance.” This research article furthers the Spiral of Silence theory by looking at the perceptions of political silencing in university classrooms. The article claims that university classrooms are an adequate place to scrutinize the Spiral of Silence theory because it is a place that has interpersonal, cultural, media, and political communication. “Because classroom interactions and societal discourse are mutually influential, instructors and students bring their own biases and cultural perspectives into the classroom.” Public opinion definitely influences the interactions people have with one another. So, it is also true that classroom interactions would be influenced by public opinion, and societal attitudes. The study researched whether there was a correlation between students' perception that they were being politically silenced and their perceived differences in student-instructor political affiliation. The study also questioned whether there was any connection between the perceived climate and the similarity of the student and instructor on their political affiliations. The researchers used participants from a Midwestern university’s communication courses. The students answered a survey over their perceptions of political silencing, classroom climate, and the climate created by the instructor. The results of this research found that there is a positive relationship of the perceived similarities in political party and ideological differences of the student and instructor to perceived greater political silencing.
Isolating the factors that remove isolation
The concept of isolation has a variety of definitions, dependent upon the circumstances it is investigated in. In one instance the problem of isolation has been defined as "social withdrawal," defined as low relative frequencies of peer interaction. Other researchers have defined isolation as low levels of peer acceptance or high levels of peer rejection. Research that considers isolation with regard to the Internet either focuses on how the Internet makes individuals more isolated from society by cutting off their contact from live human beings or how the Internet decreases social isolation of people by allowing them to expand their social networks and giving them more means to stay in touch with friends and family. Since the development of the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, a wide variety of groups have come into existence, including Web and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), newsgroups, multiuser dimensions (MUDs), and, more recently, commercial virtual communities. The theories and hypotheses about how Internet-based groups impact individuals are numerous and wide-ranging. Some researchers view these fast growing virtual chat cliques, online games, or computer-based marketplaces as a new opportunity, particularly for stigmatized people, to take a more active part in social life.
Traditionally, social isolation has been represented as a one-dimensional construct organized around the notion of a person's position outside the peer group and refers to isolation from the group as a result of being excluded from the group by peers. From children to adults, literature shows that people understand the concept of isolation and fear the repercussions of being isolated from groups of which they are a member. Fearing isolation, people would not feel free to speak up if they feel they hold dissenting views, which means people restrict themselves to having conversation with like-minded individuals, or have no conversation whatsoever. Witschge further explains, "Whether it is fear of harming others, or fear to get harmed oneself, there are factors that inhibit people from speaking freely, and which thus results in a non-ideal type of discussion, as it hinders diversity and equality of participants and viewpoints to arise fully".
The medium of the Internet has the power to free people from the fear of social isolation, and in doing so, shuts down the spiral of silence. The Internet allows people to find a place where they can find groups of people with like mindsets and similar points of view. Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson stated that "Internet users can seek out interactions with like-minded individuals who have similar values, and thus become less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own". The features of the Internet could not only bring about more people to deliberate by freeing people of the psychological barriers, but also bring new possibilities in that it "makes manageable large-scale, many-to-many discussion and deliberation". Unlike traditional media that limit participation, the Internet brings the characteristics of empowerment, enormous scales of available information, specific audiences can be targeted effectively and people can be brought together through the medium.
Online versus offline
The Internet is a place where many reference and social groups are available with similar views. Online has become a place where it appears that people have less of a fear of isolation. One research article examined individuals’ willingness to speak their opinion online and offline. Through survey results, from 305 participants, a comparison and contrast of online and offline spiral of silence behaviors was determined. Another research was done to examine the influence of different opinion climates in online forum settings (opinion congruence with majority forumers versus website source)and found personal opinion congruence being more influential than the online site in which the forum is situated in. There are more reasons to why there could be less fear online than it is easier to find groups with similar views. Less fear of isolation online might also be due to the fact that in an online setting, it is easier to retreat from the conversation. “...it is easy to quit from an online discussion without the pressure of complying with the majority group.” This is not to say that a Spiral of Silence does not occur in an online environment. People are still less likely to speak out even in an online setting, when there is a dominant opinion that differs from their own. However, in the online instance there has been proof that if someone has a reference group that speaks up for them than he or she will speak up as well. In an online situation just having one person be there to encourage a minority point of view even if it differs can put an end to a spiral of silence. Another reason for why the Spiral of Silence theory has less of an effect online could be that studies do not acknowledge whether the person is more likely to speak out against dominant views offline as well. The person might have characteristics that make him comfortable speaking out against dominant views offline, which make them just as comfortable speaking out in an online setting. Even though research suggests that there is a chance people will speak out with their opinions more often in an online setting, silencing of views can still occur. It might be worth researching whether these factors, or other factors cause online communication to be more comfortable to speak one’s mind. 
Heterogeneity and anonymity
The nature of the Internet facilitates not only the participation of more people, but also of a more heterogeneous group of people. Page stated "The onward rush of electronic communications technology will presumably increase the diversity of available ideas and the speed and ease with which they fly about and compete with each other". The reason people engage in deliberations is because of their differences, and the Internet allows differences to be easily found. The Internet seems the perfect place to find different views of a very diverse group of people who are at the same time open to such difference and disagreement needed for deliberation. As stated previously, people avoid deliberation because they fear the consequences. Noelle-Neumann's initial idea of cowering and muted citizens is difficult to reconcile with empirical studies documenting uninhibited discussion in computer-mediated contexts such as chatrooms and newsgroups.
The Internet provides an anonymous setting, and it can be argued that in an anonymous setting, fears of isolation and humiliation would be reduced. Wallace (1999) recognized that when people believe their actions cannot be attributed to them personally, they tend to become less inhibited by social conventions and restraints. This can be very positive, particularly when people are offered the opportunity to discuss difficult personal issues under conditions in which they feel safer.
The groups' ability to taunt an individual is lessened on the Internet, thus reducing the tendency to conform. Wallace goes on to summarize a number of empirical studies that do find that dissenters feel more liberated to express their views online than offline which might result from the fact that the person in the minority would not have to endure taunts or ridicule from people that are making up the majority, or be made to feel uncomfortable for having a different opinion. Stromer-Galley considered that the following characteristics of the online conversation free people from the psychological barriers that keep them from engaging in a face-to-face deliberation; "an absence of non-verbal cues, which leads to a lowered sense of social presence, and a heightened sense of anonymity".
The crux of the spiral of silence is that people believe consciously or subconsciously that the expression of unpopular opinions will lead to negative repercussions. These beliefs may not exist on the Internet for several reasons. First, embarrassment and humiliation depends on the physical presence of others. In computer-mediated communication, physical isolation often already exists and poses no further threat. Second, a great deal of normative influence is communicated through nonverbal cues, such as eye contact and gestures, but computer-mediated communication typically precludes many of these cues. Third, Keisler, Siegel, and McQuire observe that nonverbal social context cues convey formality and status inequality in face-to-face communication. When these cues are removed, the importance of social status as source of influence recedes. Group hierarchies that develop in face-to-face interaction emerge less clearly in a mediated environment. The form and consequences of conformity influence should undergo significant changes given the interposition of a medium that reduces the social presence of participants. Social presence is defined as the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction, or the degree to which the medium conveys some of the person's presence.
An important issue in obtaining heterogeneity in conversation is equal access for all the participants and equal opportunities to influence in the discussion. When people believe they are ignorant about a topic, incapable to participate in a discussion or not equal to their peers, they tend to not even become involved in a deliberation. When people do decide to participate, their participation might be overruled by dominant others, or their contribution might be valued less or more, depending on their status, Dahlberg praises the Internet for its possibility to liberate people from the social hierarchies and power relations that exist offline: "The 'blindness' of cyberspace to bodily identity... [is supposed to allow] people to interact as if they were equals. Arguments are said to be assessed by the value of the claims themselves and not the social position of the poster".
Gastil sees this feature as one of the strongest points of the Internet: "if computer-mediated interaction can consistently reduce the independent influence of status, it will have a powerful advantage over face-to-face deliberation". Another characteristic that seems to become less important is status. In a discussion forum, your words would carry more weight than your socioeconomic position. While status cues are difficult to detect, perceptions about the status converge, and this lessens stereotyping and prejudice.
It may be that people do feel more equal in online forums than they feel offline. For one thing is certain: racism, ageism, and other kinds of discrimination against out groups "seems to be diminishing because the cues to out-group status are not as obvious". Next to this, the Internet has rapidly and dramatically increased the capacities to develop, share and organize information, realizing more equality of access to information.
The critics of this theory most often claim that individuals have different influences that affect whether they speak out or not. Critics believe that there are three potential influences besides the fear of isolation that could cause the spiral of silence.
- Research indicates that people fear isolation in their small social circles more than they do in the population at large. Within a large nation, one can always find a group of people who share one's opinions, however people fear isolation from their close family and friends more in theory. Research has demonstrated that this fear of isolation is stronger than the fear of being isolated from the entire public, as it is typically measured
- Scholars have also questioned whether personal characteristics have an influence on whether a person will willingly speak out. “Naturally, if one has a positive self-concept and lacks a sense of shame, that person will speak out regardless of how she or he perceives the climate of public opinion.”
- Another influence critics give for people choosing not to speak out against public opinion is culture. The culture that a person lives in greatly affects their willingness to speak out. “Not every culture holds freedom of speech in as high regard as the United States, and in some cultures, open expression of ideas is forbidden.“ Some cultures are more individualistic, which would support more of an individual’s own opinion, while collectivist cultures support the overall group's opinion and needs. Cultural factors could also be gender. “Perhaps another explanation for why individuals do not express minority opinions can be made: that women’s perception of language, not public opinion, forces them to remain quiet.” Scheufele & Moy, further assert that certain conflict styles and cultural indicators should be used to understand these differences
- Further, Scheufele & Moy find problems in the operationalization of key terms, including willingness to speak out. This construct should be measured in terms of actually speaking out, not voting or other conceptually similar constructs.
- Conformity experiments have no moral component, yet morality is a key construct in the model. These conformity experiments, particularly those by Asch form part of the base of the theory. Scholars question whether these conformity experiments are relevant to the development of SOS.
- Abilene paradox
- Bandwagon effect
- Blue Code of Silence
- Bradley effect
- Bystander effect
- Cognitive bias
- Collective behavior
- Conspiracy of silence (expression)
- Flaming (Internet)
- Group behaviour
- Memory hole
- Overton window
- Pluralistic ignorance
- Shame society
- Shy Tory Factor
- Silent majority
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