Love him or hate him, Edward Snowden has had a profound effect on the way many people view their government, the internet and the topic of surveillance.
Snowden’s revelations about surveillance have also affected the way people discuss the topic of government snooping, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.
Pew Research polled 1,801 American adults, and found that people were far less likely to discuss the Snowden leaks online than in person.
Just 42% of those surveyed said they were willing to air their views or enter a discussion on Facebook or Twitter but 86% said they would be happy to discuss the NSA surveillance program in a face-to-face setting.
The researchers also discovered that people's willingness to talk about Snowden and surveillance was greatly affected by their perception of how their audience would react to their point of view.
The study revealed that workplace discussions were 3 times more likely to occur when it was believed that co-workers were like-minded. In a family setting, a conversation about surveillance was 1.9 times as likely if a consensus of opinion was anticipated and an open conversation with friends was 1.42 times as likely if they were thought to be in agreement.
The Pew Research Center examined other reasons why people may choose to stay quiet on the topic of surveillance and discovered that a low level of confidence in personal knowledge on the topic, strength of feelings and interest level were all key factors.
Given the wide range of factors that could affect a person’s willingness to discuss surveillance issues in a number of settings, the authors of the study concluded that their findings pointed to a 'spiral of silence' in which people who believe they hold a minority view will keep it to themselves for fear of social exclusion:
It might be the case that people do not want to disclose their minority views for fear of disappointing their friends, getting into fruitless arguments, or losing them entirely. Some people may prefer not to share their views on social media because their posts persist and can be found later - perhaps by prospective employers or others with high status. As to why the absence of agreement on social media platforms spills over into a spiral of silence in physical settings, we 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 topic of Edward Snowden, surveillance and the NSA is of course not the only example of like-minded people coming together to voice their opinions on a topic.
Earlier this month Vox’s Zack Beauchamp looked into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it was being reported and discussed, especially on social media.
Beauchamp discovered that the vast majority of tweets about the conflict came together in clusters that were largely either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian.
The two clusters almost exclusively kept discussions among themselves, possibly indicating that social media users on both sides of the conflict were getting their information from sources that held their own viewpoint.
What we can learn from these two studies is that like-minded people seem to stick together, and those with less-strong or vocal opinions tend to plant themselves firmly on the fence of silence.
Humans, by our nature, like to be accepted by our peers and associate with those who share our views. The self-confirming viewpoints of friends, family and associates reinforce and validate our own beliefs but that need for acceptance also acts as a type of social censorship.
The Pew researchers point out that the Snowden-NSA story is individual given its context, even though the survey took place in September 2013 - before a lot of the surveillance revelations had surfaced.
The context of the Snowden-NSA story may also have made it somewhat different from other kinds of public debates. At the time of this study, the material leaked by Edward Snowden related to NSA monitoring of communications dealt specifically with "meta-data" collected on people’s phone and internet communications. For a phone call, the meta-data collected by the NSA was described as including the duration of the call, when it happened, the numbers the call was between, but not a recording of the call. For email, meta-data would have included the sender and recipient’s email addresses and when it was sent, but not the subject or text of the email.
Given what we now know, the researchers admit things might be even more different:
In reaction to these additional revelations, people may have adjusted their use of social media and their willingness to discuss a range of topics, including public issues such as government surveillance.