Abstract: The Effects of Social Support In Online Political Discussion

This summer, I will be conducting a survey experiment to assess whether social endorsement of a political opinion — in this case, on the Ferguson grand jury decision — on an online social network discourages individuals who hold the minority opinion from expressing their view. Does the perceived level of social support for a political view in an online setting affect an individual’s likelihood to publicly express disagreement?

According to the “spiral of silence” theory on public opinion formation, the fear of social rejection discourages people in opinion minorities from expressing their opinions publicly (Noelle-Neumann 1993). Relatedly, social psychologists have emphasized the role of individual personality differences in determining who, among opinion minorities, tends to self-censor in small group deliberation settings (Hayes, Glynn, and Shanahan 2005). According to a recent Pew Internet Study on social media and the “spiral of silence,” individuals’ tendency to self-censor when they perceive that most people in their social group disagree with them extends to political discussions on online social networks (Pew Research Center, Social Media and the “Spiral of Silence” 2014).

As a result of their design, online social networking sites expose people to the opinions and attitudes of even weak social ties. The various social endorsement cues on online social networks, most notably Facebook’s “like” button, make individual users especially conscious of their friends’ and acquaintances’ opinions and attitudes. Thus, I hope this project offer insight into whether and how rather small social cues  impact the likelihood of individuals to express themselves when they perceive a lack of social support for their opinions.


Hampton, Keith, et al. “Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence.’” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 26, 2014). http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/.

Hayes, Andrew F., Carroll J. Glynn, and James Shanahan. “Validating the Willingness to Self- Censor Scale: Individual Differences in the Effect of the Climate of Opinion on Opinion Expression.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 17.4 (2005): 443-455.

Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth. The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion, Our Social Skin. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.