Software // Social
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8/28/2014
09:40 AM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Social Media Bites Its Tongue

Pew Research finds that social media users are less likely to voice opinions face-to-face if they believe their Facebook followers would disagree. Call it surveillance fallout.

Facebook's mission is to make the world more open and connected. But in so doing, it may be making people less willing to speak their minds.

The average Facebook user -- someone who accesses the service a few times every day -- turns out to be half as likely as others to voice an opinion with a friend at a restaurant, according to a study conducted by Pew Research.

If this Facebook user believes his or her followers agree with the opinion at issue, he or she is about three-quarters as likely as others to speak up.

Pew suggests that social media's value as a way to broaden public discourse by encouraging the expression of minority viewpoints may be overstated. The research group theorizes that the spiral of silence -- the tendency of people not to voice their opinions when they believe their views are not shared -- may extend from social media to in-person interaction, effectively dampening dissent online and off.

"[W]e speculate that social media users may have witnessed those with minority opinions experiencing ostracism, ridicule, or bullying online, and that this might increase the perceived risk of opinion sharing in other settings," the Pew study says.

This chilling effect occurs amid deliberate efforts by authorities, and by Facebook itself, to manipulate social media users.

Yet, Pew's study may be barking up the wrong tree. The research firm asked 1,801 adults about leaks last year from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden that revealed widespread surveillance of telephone and online communications by the NSA, about people's willingness to discuss the revelations in-person and online, and about people's perceptions of the views of others.

Pew looked at willingness to discuss the Snowden revelations as a way to measure the social value of social media. But the research group might have done better to focus on the cause rather than the chilling effect, on surveillance itself. If social media dulls dissent, omnipresent, inescapable surveillance deserves some blame, more perhaps than the spiral of silence by which we temper controversial speech.

A study published earlier this year, "Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior," suggests as much. Having surveyed Google search terms before and after the Snowden revelations, the paper found that "users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U. S. government."

A study published by writers group PEN last October came to a similar conclusion. "The fear of surveillance -- and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers -- has prompted PEN writers to change their behavior in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information," the PEN report states. It notes that 28% of PEN writers curtailed their social media usage, among other forms of self-censorship, following the Snowden revelations.

So while it's important to understand that social media does less to invigorate public discourse than many hoped and discourages face-to-face debate, it's at least as important to recognize that surveillance inhibits interaction in all its forms. It's not about the media, social or otherwise; it's about the message -- we're watching -- and what that means to those being watched.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
9/2/2014 | 3:19:08 PM
NSA???
When I make a post here, for example, I'm not concerned with what the NSA thinks - why should I be? What I am concerned with is what YOU ALL think, just like I would be if we all worked in the same office. That's because like most human beings, I want to be liked. Of course I think twice before writing, just like I'd otherwise think twice before talking.

About Facebook, because I work at home, I keep Facebook on all day - it's my version of "The Watercooler." One thing that bugs me about THIS SITE is that before I log on, I have to turn Facebook off. Otherwise, the logon happens automatically, via Facebook, I presume.

 

 

 
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
9/2/2014 | 11:41:04 AM
Re: Here's to Anonymity Online
Yes, linking to Facebook could give people a whole lot more insight into your life if your settings are Friends of Friends (or you're naive enough to be even more open than that). I don't mind linking to Twitter. That's more anonymous, somehow.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
9/1/2014 | 9:43:52 AM
Re: Social media and identity
And then, of course, not everybody feels socially obligated to click "Like" just because they viewed/enjoyed something.
zaious
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zaious,
User Rank: Ninja
8/31/2014 | 3:16:22 PM
Re: Social media and identity
Social media has tuaght us few things. One is we try to be crowd pleasers. We want the support from the like minded people. At the same time, we get upset when we fail to gain the desired number of 'like" -s in facebook. It might not have shown up in some other people's wall, so they did not have the chance to 'like' it. But, the original person posting it does not know it.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
8/31/2014 | 12:24:48 AM
Re: Social media and identity
@Thomas:

Indeed.  Case in point, go to YouTube and click the first search result for "what's on your mind".
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
8/31/2014 | 12:21:48 AM
Re: Here's to Anonymity Online
The alternative for newspapers that have to deal with vitriol -- much of it often racist and otherwise widely offensive -- is to get rid of online commenting systems altogether.  A set of newspapers in Maine did just that a couple of years ago -- because they were tired of having to moderate commenting systems upon which people were making jerks of themselves.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
8/31/2014 | 12:20:11 AM
Re: Here's to Anonymity Online
@Alison: Anything that makes for fewer Internet comments is a good thing in my book.

(see, e.g., XCKD # 202, 386, 481)
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Strategist
8/31/2014 | 12:04:08 AM
Re: Here's to Anonymity Online
Alison_Diana, I support Florida Today's efforts to hold people accountable for their comments. It is a shame they did so through Facebook. I suppose it was their easiest way to do it though...
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
8/29/2014 | 9:28:23 AM
Re: Social media and identity
"The only person you should try to be better than, is the person you were yesterday."
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
8/29/2014 | 9:15:16 AM
Here's to Anonymity Online
I recall when my local paper, Florida Today, married its online comments to Facebook. Previously, readers could log-on separately (or via Facebook), allowing them to create pseudonyms before sharing their thoughts on local news stories, politics, and other divisive issues. Now, we have to link to our Facebook pages. I have no idea how that's affected the number of comments. I'd imagine the quality has increased, in that trolls have dropped. But I know I very rarely post any more, and only do so when I'm clearly in the majority -- a local coach is arrested for child abuse, for example, or someone locks a dog in a hot car. I will never post about politics, church topics, or something else where I risk hurting a neighbor's feelings or getting drawn into a flame war. It's not worth it. 

In that way, Florida Today (and Facebook) have lessened meaningful debate. I (and other friends) can't deal with the expected vitriol so we just drop out of online discussions if Facebook is part of the equation.
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