Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Spiral of Silence


                                                                  (Monroe County)

Imagine there is a theory, called X. Five years ago "liking" X was unpopular. But today, X is popular. So, a lot of people now are liking X. If X was not popular today, these same people would not publicly like X, just as they were voiceless concerning X five, maybe ten years ago.

The "spiral of silence" explains this behavior. "The spiral of silence counts among the most cited and replicated theories in social sciences." (Here.)

The theory of the spiral of silence can be broken down into the following core hypotheses (Ib.):

  • Most people are afraid of social isolation.
  • Therefore people constantly observe other people’s behavior in order to find out which opinions and behaviors are met with approval or rejection in the public sphere.
  • People exert “isolation pressure” on other people, for instance, by frowning or turning away when somebody says or does something that is rejected by public opinion.
  • People tend to hide their opinion away when they think that they would expose themselves to “isolation pressure” with their opinion.
  • People who feel public support, in contrast, tend to express their opinion loud and clear.
  • Loud opinion expressions on the one side and silence on the other side sets the spiral of silence into motion.
  • The process is typically ignited by emotionally and morally laden issues.
  • In case of consensus on an issue in a given society, it is unlikely that a spiral of silence will be set into motion. The spiral is usually elicited by controversial issues.
  • The actual number of partisans of an opinion is not necessarily decisive for their weight in the spiral of silence. The opinion of a minority may actually be perceived as majority in the public sphere if their partisans act assertively enough and publicly defend their opinion with emphasis.
  • Mass media may have a decisive influence on the formation of public opinion. If the media repeatedly (in a “cumulative” way) and concordantly (in a “consonant” way) support one side in a public controversy, this side will stand a significantly higher chance of finishing the spiral-of-silence process as winner. 
  • Fear of and threat with social isolation operate subconsciously: Most people do not consciously think about how their behavior is oriented by public opinion.
  • Public opinion is limited in time and space. Wherever people live together in societies, public opinion will function as a mechanism of social control. However, what specifically public opinion approves or rejects will change with time and differ from place to place.
  • Public opinion stabilizes and integrates society because conflicts will be resolved through spirals of silence in favor of one opinion. This is what is referred to as the integration function of public opinion.