Political posts in social media are a sure fire way to lose friends and alienate others. That's probably why most of us avoid talking about politics on Twitter and Facebook.
When I suggested this to one of my friends who was posting some radical opinions about a political candidate, his response was "well, if they unfriend me because of my political posts, they’re probably not really my friends."
My friend is not alone. Some people just don’t care who they anger and would rather use social media as the new soapbox in the Internet town square.
While this might be true, it doesn’t account for the millions of others who follow the "no political posts" norm of civilized social media discourse, or those who manage to share their thoughts in a way that is respectful to those who disagree.
According to findings released this week by the Pew Research Internet Project, we might have a better idea about why people avoid engaging in political debates.
Pew surveyed 1,801 adults about Edward Snowden's 2013 exposure of the NSA surveillance program. According to documents leaked by Snowden, the government has been recording phone calls and collecting email of American citizens without our consent.
The NSA program was divisive and controversial. And at the time of their study, Pew researchers also found that the country was divided on the issue (49% thought the program served the public interest; 44% did not).
You can access the Pew study at http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/.
It turns out, according to the Pew study, that people were more likely to avoid politically-charged conversations on social media than they were in face-to-face settings. If people are going to engage in debate, and voice their opinions, it seems they prefer to do it in-person and not with a tweet.
The Pew study looked at something we refer to in public opinion research as the "Spiral of Silence."
The Spiral (made famous by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann) is simple. As one opinion is perceived to be the majority, and therefore dominant opinion, other people who think their opinion is in the minority will be less likely to speak out for fear they will be shunned.
As the dominant position gains strength, the minority voice gets weaker and weaker, falling further down the spiral. This explanation has been used to explain why strong minority voices are sometimes perceived to represent the majority.
This was supposed to change with social media. Twitter and Facebook should have been the level playing field for the disenfranchised, the minority voices. Social media was supposed to offer a platform where those with little or no power could be heard.
No more spiral, right?
According to the Pew study, social media was no more effective than in-person discussions for creating a comfortable space to share alternative opinions, at least when it came to discussing Snowden.
And just like our face-to-face debates, we may be more willing to share our views on social media if we think our friends and others agree with us. The Pew researchers found that, at work, people were about three times more likely to join a discussion about the Snowden case if they felt their coworkers shared their opinion.
People are still social creatures, even in the virtual world. Most people adhere to the same rules of polite communication on social media as they do in face-to-face interactions.
However, the people out with friends and family at a party, spouting opinions and making snarky remarks about a recent controversy, will likely do the same online.
Just as we make an excuse to avoid those people in public (and to get out of earshot at the party), we can hide them, defriend them, or stop following their feed in social media.
We focus so much attention on how social media has changed the way we interact with each other. The Pew study shines a light on the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
~ A version of this column appeared in the Sunday, August 31, 2014 edition of The Vindicator newspaper
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.