The Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence starts with public opinion which is the general consensus view in society at the time and, any individual who disagrees with it may be shunned from society. Therefore, if an individual does not share society’s views they are in the minority which spirals into silence and they do not voice their opinion. This theory is relevant to the study of media and communication as the media has a great impact on the general consensus and views. The mass media is a very prominent source of information in modern day society, by contributing to what is the majority view as well as projecting these views onto society. The general consensus view is often referred to as public opinion, which is defined by Neuman as “the opinion one can express without fear of social isolation.” This is supporting the idea of a Spiral of Silence because, by expressing a minority opinion, you face isolation from society.

The Spiral of Silence also dictates that the opinion climate of current society greatly affects people’s willingness to voice their opinions. This is especially relevant to media today as it is easier than ever to gauge the opinion climate since the introduction of Twitter and user generated content which have made it easier to find discussions and debates of opinion from multiple audiences. The social online environment creates a mass form of communication where large audiences can be reached instantly thereby spreading what appears to be public opinion quickly and extensively via mass media. A spiral is then created as audiences believe that this opinion reflected through the mass media is automatically the dominant public opinion because it is gaining popularity.  Minority views lose ground because people become fearful of sharing their allegiance with this minority view.

However, Noelle Neuman also specified that there must be a consensus in the media in order for the Spiral of Silence to develop. This is a strength of Neuman’s argument because it accepts that this is not a constant process. It can only happen in certain conditions because only a “unanimous media environment” can shape people’s opinions to believe that there is a dominant opinion which they must agree with. It is debatable as to whether there is ever a unanimous agreement of opinion within the media industry, for example within the news industry each paper has its own political stance which greatly impacts on its opinions when reporting on issues for discussion.

Another disadvantage of the Spiral of Silence approach which may arguably deem it outdated is the wider range and accessibility of content online. This allows us to participate in “selective exposure” where we are able to hand pick the content we are consuming very easily and do this based upon our personal views. Therefore, the media we consume correlates to our personal views and does not create the isolation that the Spiral of Silence suggests those with minority views feel. Consequently, the media we choose to consume is likely to be consistent with the values and opinions we are being presented, with little variation of sources and therefore viewpoints. We have an endless amount of choice in content online which we are forced to filter through and select what we wish to consume. Although the content we choose from will represent multiple opinions and viewpoints, if we are not all consuming the same mass media but selecting what we want we are therefore going to choose content that supports our personal opinions. Alternatively, we may choose to consume content representing multiple different viewpoints from varying sources. Whilst this mass exposure will provide you with a range of viewpoints it will not necessarily lead you to believe that there is one majority public opinion because it may allow you to find a community where your view point is accepted and supported. This therefore creates an opposite effect to the Spiral of Silence and provides a place for minority views to feel supported.

New online media and user generated content is not obliged to follow the previous regulations and norms expected of mass media. For example, there are multiple opinions produced by different social movements which may be extremely small but the internet provides them with a voice no matter their opinion or the popularity of it. Although the production of news content is highly regulated, citizen journalism and online posts made by the the public can be biased towards their own opinions and follow the opinions and views of its producers. This shows how the Spiral of Silence is harder to fall into as we now have so many outlets and opportunities to share our opinions, no matter what they are. Furthermore, the internet has provided a platform where we can produce content anonymously which, if our opinion conflicts that of the mass media,
removes the fear of consequences associated with holding these opinions. This helps ensure we do not fall into the Spiral of Silence. It is also easier than ever to show support subtly through Twitter and Facebook where audiences can “like” a post and they are able to show support without any strong commitment (Porten –chee). This also adds another evaluation to the theory as it may be applicable for face to face conversations. However, the anonymity of online comment has removed the fear from the Spiral of Silence therefore making it outdated when applied to the current day.

Furthermore some people are not affected by the fear of isolation and exclusion that is suggested by Neuman. They may have a minority opinion but this does not stop them from voicing this opinion publicly. Some people suggest we are not even able to understand the opinion climate in society these days and therefore cannot gauge the difference between our own opinions and the majority of society. If true, society cannot affect the opinions we express.
Nevertheless Neuman’s theory does provide us with an explanation for why some may not express their views in society and choose not to share their own genuine opinions more widely. The idea of the Spiral of Silence is that it uses the mass media, which although there are many media outlets are still very popular and influential in current day society, leading us to question the role of media today and its responsibly when it is having such a wider impact in terms of democracy and a range of views being heard.

In conclusion, although Neuman provides a strong reasoning behind why minority views may not be publically shared, the Spiral of Silence could be seen as outdated and requires updating to make it relevant to today’s current situation in relation to the growth in social media and user generated content.

Citations

Porten- Chee and Eilders, 2015, Spiral of Silence online: How online communication affects opinion climate perception and opinion expression regarding the climate change debate. Studies in Communication Sciences, 15, pg 143-150.

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