‘The Spiral of Silence’: Self-censorship, the Internet and the Narrowing Lines of Debate.
In our current cultural landscape it is more common to repress our true feelings and opinions on social media, projecting a false identity to our friends and creating within this a ‘Spiral of Silence’. We are increasingly engaging with a white-washed internet, devoid of real debate, existing in a sterile world which is beginning to be replicated in our non-digital lives.
In his book “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed”, Jon Ronson, the British journalist and author, chronicles the growing list of people who have experienced the wrath of ‘digital lynch mobs’, all for their online missteps. These ranged from mentioning Aids and Africa in a joke, Justine Sacco, to Ronson himself for daring to tackle this subject. There was no continuity within these attacks, or “trial by Twitter” as Ronson calls it, except for the fact that these people were deemed, by their own peers, to have stepped out of line and subsequently marked as undesirables, fair game for anybody to attack and tear down. They quickly closed down these people and instead of opening a dialogue they turned to personal attacks, sweeping statements and a colossal lack of understanding of both context and sarcasm. To these attackers the victims were not fit to hold their own opinion, have an online presence, or in some cases their own private life, ultimately resulting in loss of jobs, personal breakdowns and years of digital exile (I encourage you all to read this book if you haven’t). The overbearing nature of these vigilantes is particularly evident when we consider how public figures are treated within this Twitter sphere. They have decided that these ‘famous’ people need to be above the usual slips of the keyboard that can befall us all especially as each new celebrity name is subjected to a microscopic deconstruction of their pre-famous digital lives. A recent example of this can be seen in the way that Burnley footballer Andre Gray has been treated following the unearthing of “homophobic” tweets dating from over four years ago. Obviously these are opinions that are unacceptable, however Gray states that these were comments made years ago when he was much younger and he now claims to no longer “be that person”. We are faced with a very scary concept here: within the internet nothing is forgotten, no matter how much time, personal development or intellectual enlightenment we pass through, our past comments will always come back to haunt us and it’ll be hard to be forgiven when they are unearthed.
These online behaviours are the manifestation of a new type of Internet usage that has emerged over the last few years. The Internet has moved from a utopian desire to share hobbies, desires and opinions, regardless of their sensitivity, to a controlled space where we surround ourselves with endless ‘yes men’. This is reinforced by a paper by The Pew Research Centre released in 2014. While profiling 1,801 American adults, the authors discovered that people, who were asked about Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations as a base question, were half as likely to discuss sensitive topics on social media rather than in person. The most interesting revelation within all of this is people’s self-censorship when faced with the prospect of disagreeing with online friends, “86%” were “very” or “somewhat” willing to discuss difficult subjects at a family dinner or with friends, however when placed onto social media this figure shrank to “42%”. This isn’t the full story either, the research concluded that this social media silence transferred itself into everyday conversation with people less likely to share opinions face-to-face if they saw their Facebook or Twitter friends expressing opposing views. In 1974, the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann named this process the ‘Spiral of Silence’ when considering people’s reluctance to discuss certain political ideas in public with people who might disagree with you. This was articulated through a “fear of isolation”, expressing the wrong opinion and in the process facing the wrath of your community. The internet has moved the goalposts, so to speak, of this concept and instead of concentrating on isolation within a local sphere (friends and family) we are focused on the isolation from the collective consciousness, and in the process paranoid that one false step can exile us from our digital and, increasingly becoming more probable, our non-digital lives.
We see endless manifestations of this ‘Spiral of Silence’ within our recent political and cultural lives. During the 2015 British general election the majority of polls were pointing to a narrow labour win, or even another coalition government. However the “shy Tory factor” led the Conservative party to a slim majority and in the process confounded pollsters and many other political experts. “The shy Tory” was characterised as somebody who either refused to answer the exit poll or didn’t take part at all, leading the data to paint a completely different picture to the realities of the political climate. These were people who felt some sense of shame to confessing their political allegiances when faced with either the angry digital mob of left leaning activists or their own family and friends. This was mirrored in the Brexit polls of June 2016, where even on the day of the referendum the polls were still pointing to a vote to remain. More disturbingly this is becoming a concept that people are now predicating. Within the American presidential race the Trump campaign has stated that there are many more people planning to vote for Trump than the polls allude to. The feeling being that these people are ultimately too scared to openly discuss their own opinions, whether privately or publically. This is disturbing not only because a president Trump is nightmare inducing, but because it obscures the political process by making predictions harder, while also closing down legitimate debate. If people are no longer willing to even acknowledge who, and what, they are voting for then public debate becomes merely a formality, devoid of any ‘real world’ application. As the concept states: we ultimately spiral into silence within the face of difference.
This ‘Spiral of Silence’ is endemic of how the internet has structured itself within the last few years, especially when we consider social media. People latch onto the opinions that they find distasteful and instead of challenging these concepts through argument, they attack and ‘shame’ these opinions away. As a result of this we are beginning to self-censor ourselves to the point of placidity, surrounding ourselves with endless aforementioned ‘yes men’ who agree with us through the fear of the ‘other’. We can see this exasperated by the algorithms that the internet companies are increasingly implementing within their programmes, especially in regards to the ‘filter bubble’ algorithm. This is a tool used by internet companies to gather information on their users (location, past click behaviour and search history), the results, in theory, are that you experience a more tailored internet. The idea behind this is simple: we only see things we would assumingly like based on our internet past. However, this is deeply concerning and not just for our privacy online. By its very nature this algorithm isolates us, as internet users, and restricts us within our own designed cultural bubbles, separating ourselves from differences of opinion and clumping us “with like-minded individuals”. This ultimately is going to be our downfall. We naturally orientate ourselves around like minded people because the flipside is isolation and within this process we are stifling debate, not just culturally but personally, through our own self-censorship.
Our online lives are starting to separate themselves from our own thoughts, we are creating barriers to free speech, through shaming, ‘the Spiral of Silence’ and via the internet companies’ personalised spaces. The overwhelming result of this will be an internet that no longer has any relevance to our everyday lives and our own thoughts, a whitewashed ‘safe space’ where nothing other than the consensus is up for debate. The most disturbing realisation within this is the way it could seep into our offline lives, if we see these attacks on the internet are we more likely to bury within us what we truly believe? The problem is that we can never truly grasp the levels of sarcasm, tone and context in 140 characters and neither should we. Someone’s opinions, personal attributes and real character should never be decided in such a paltry amount of prose. Through these attacks the ‘Twitter mobs’ are utilising the oldest trick in the bullies book: Fear. They are creating a climate of fear around the internet and as a result it has become a stagnant, un-progressive and dark place. We are becoming afraid of our own opinions through this fear of retribution, while we surround ourselves with millions of Stasiesk informers relishing the chance to light the torches for the next angry mob. As Stephen Fry recently commented as he deleted his Twitter account in the wake of another attack: “the fun is over.” We need to take the internet back from these ‘people’, creating once again a space that is accepting, where people can make mistakes, expand their true opinions and ultimately save free speech. In process we need to create a space where we attack concepts and ideas and not people’s personal appearance or twitter profile. We need to have the right to make mistakes, to say how we feel and to not be prosecuted for our own opinions, this is the only way we can grow personally and as a society. As Oscar Wilde quipped: “Hear no evil, speak no evil, and you won’t be invited to cocktail parties.”
 Ronson, J. 2015. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Riverhead Books: New York.