Sure, there is discourse online. But people aren't participating as much as you think. (Courtesy: iStock)
Have an opinion about Edward Snowden or the National Security Agency's surveillance programs? Is it an unpopular one? Have you shared that opinion on social media? Then you are somewhat of a rarity.
A report published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University found that social media — particularly Twitter and Facebook — hasn't furthered the discourse on contentious political topics and can often lead people to staying away from discussion, particularly if a person's network doesn't support their own opinion.
The study surveyed 1,801 adults about the NSA's government surveillance project that collected metadata from Americans' emails and phone calls. The survey found that more people were willing to discuss their feelings about the program in person than on social media, and those who were uncomfortable about discussing the program in a public setting did not think social media provided a good alternative outlet.
On the flipside, those who were active on social media were less willing to share their feelings in face-to-face settings, with those people more likely to "self-censor" their views in both public and online settings if their network's opinion didn't align with theirs.
While social media has delivered instances of galvanizing public participation in public issues — think about all the times you've watched an Ice Bucket Challenge video — Pew researchers have found that networks often mirror the pre-Internet "spiral of silence," the tendency for people to stay silent on large issues when they know their opinion isn't widely shared.
"Social media is very effective for calling people to action and encouraging activists to take stands. It turns out it's not that great for deliberation," said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center and a co-author of the study. "Our theory is that when social media users watch what is going on in their feeds, they see a lot more dispute than they would have otherwise recognized or might have heard of. So they know how much contention there is going on in their world, and they say 'Gosh, a lot more people are angry about this and I don't want to risk annoying friends, or alienating a family member, or saying something that might jeopardize my status in my network, so I'm just going to keep quiet.'"
Despite a hesitance from the public to weigh in, whether it be online or in public, Rainie said government agencies should still try to influence those who are actively voicing their opinions online.
"What you see on social media is obviously [from] important stakeholders and people who influence public policy," he said. "So there are ways to make sure you avail yourself [to] as many insights as you can from social media, because it probably helps you shape your arguments and the idea that you want to put out in the public square."
While the report found that people's use of social media did little to increase their access to information about the NSA program — only 18 percent of respondents got at least some information from Facebook or Twitter — Rainie said it's still important for the government to harness those influencers in order to further discussion around public policy.
"Straight on factual information is probably always good to disseminate," Rainie said. "If you are in a government agency and putting out information, there might be people who will dispute it or might not like it just because it is coming from the government. But by and large, the larger story we see with social media is its obviously a platform people use to exchange ideas and to learn about the world."
You can read the full Pew report here.