WASHINGTON — Tired of that friend or relative who won't stop posting or tweeting political opinions? Online loudmouths may be annoying, but a new survey suggests they are in the minority.
In a report released Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found that most people who regularly use social media sites were actually less likely to share their opinions, even offline.
The findings run counter to how many people view social media. But a survey that asked some 1,800 adults about the case of leaker Edward Snowden found that people on Facebook and Twitter were more likely to clam up on whether widespread government surveillance is a good thing. Researchers also noted the "spiral of silence" phenomenon: Unless people know their audience agrees, they are likely to shy away from talking about hot-button issues.
In other words, most of us are more comfortable with ice-bucket challenges than political banter.
"People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion. And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere," said Keith Hampton, a communications professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who helped conduct the study.
The survey focused on the willingness of adults to share their opinion on Snowden's 2013 revelation of widespread government surveillance of Americans' phone and email records. Hampton said the Snowden case provided a concrete example of a major national issue that divides Americans.
Among Pew's findings was that the typical Facebook user — someone who logs onto the site a few times per day — was half as likely to discuss the Snowden case at a public meeting as a non-Facebook user. Meanwhile, someone who goes on Twitter a few times per day is one-quarter as likely to share opinions in the workplace compared with those who never use Twitter.
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, said it's possible that social media actually sensitizes people to different opinions.
"Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts," he said. "This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend."
Another finding was that social media didn't make it easier for people to share opinions they wouldn't otherwise voice. Of the 14 percent of Americans unwilling to discuss the Snowden case with others, fewer than one-half of 1 percent were willing to discuss it on social media.
While many people might be relieved and say keeping political debate off Facebook is a matter of tact, Hampton said there is a concern that fear of offending someone on social media is stifling debate, adding, "A society where people aren't able to share their opinions openly and gain from understanding alternative perspectives is a polarized society."
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