Whispering, Whimpering, and Wailing about Religion on Facebook

May 22, 2017

Religion and Social Media: Debunking the myth of the ‘Spiral of Silence’

Shush! - mural outside of Centre Georges Pompidou. Photo Credit: Steve Silverman.

Shush! - mural outside of Centre Georges Pompidou. Photo Credit: Steve Silverman.

The silent majority?

Is publicly debating contentious issues off limits for most people, as the ‘Spiral of Silence’ thesis implies? The idea that people tend to shut it certainly pops up in several recent studies – a long with the insinuation that ‘most people’ shun debates about contentious issues. Several studies suggest that ‘most people’ do not speak out about contentious issues related to religion or politics. Against this backdrop, the hypothesis of ‘the spiral of silence’ appears to have been revived in a number of recent academic publications. 

Photo Credit: new3dom3000

Photo Credit: new3dom3000

The Spiral of Silence hypothesis from the 1970s posits that people seem to zip it in public when faced with the prospect of discussing a politically contentious issue. The argument is that people tend to shy away from any prospect of confrontational encounters. In How the World Changed Social Media, anthropologist Daniel  Miller and his co-authors, resurrect Noelle-Neumann’s ‘spiral of silence’ hypothesis, and describe how most of their informants from 8 different countries around the globe, shy away from participating in online debates in the following manner:

'Social media was mainly used by ordinary people to ‘watch’ politics, even as spectators watch a football match, rather than to ‘do’ politics.'

Being a spectator to controversial themes is often presented as a generalized norm.

Everyone hates confrontation but loves a scandal?

Most people’ allegedly prefer to discuss such topics in smaller, more tight-knit settings where they do not run the risk of being attacked by strangers with opposing views, in both online and offline contexts. This paints the picture that people generally tend to avoid conflict and confrontation because conflict causes discomfort. At the same time a series of studies also point to how people relish scandals. The argument that nonetheless holds these positions together is that people may for instance relish in a religious or political scandal by following the news intently, but they do not necessarily participate in public debates about contentious issues. It is well-documented that people are drawn to scandals. Still, active participation in scandals appears to be limited - unless one counts bantering about political scandals.  In sum, findings from both anthropological studies and media-centric statistical studies suggest that ‘most  people’ prefer to forever keep their silence in public debates on politically heated themes. These conclusions twinned with the resurrection of the ‘spiral of silence’ as the main point of departure nonetheless contradict an intuitive sense that many of us have in terms of feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of people who seem to have no reservations whatsoever with regards to unleashing their anger, frustration and at times hatred upon the world. Evidently the ‘spiral of silence’ does not apply to all.

Everyday perceptions tend to promote the idea that online commenters either 'rule the world’ through hardline Facebook updates and a ‘Tweetocracy’ of provocative one-liners, or propose that the most active online debaters are only a small minority and - in short - do not represent ‘most people’. I will not here delve into a critical methodological argument detailing the multiple ways in which our methodological approach and research design shapes our findings. 

As fate would have it religion is a topic that tends to stir up online debates.

My current research focuses on the multiple ways in which media users engage with mediatized conflicts about religio-political topics in a particular online context. Put differently, ‘the Spiral of Silence’ does not seem to be the best fitting metaphor for those who debate controversial issues online for months or years on end. 

Breaking the Silence 

While some people may suddenly speak out, due to a particular cause, or in response to specific politically charged moment (such as the recent Refugee Crisis), others may have been vocal all a long. Still, it is obvious that some topics have the power to mobilize interest and involvement from publics. For instance, Facebook groups that deal with religious or political issues can draw several thousands of people to their initial cause or campaign, some even exceed a 100 000 likes. Obviously one cannot assume that say 150 000 likers are all active participants in an online group. Both spectators and slacktivists will be in their midst. Still, when a cause or a group mobilizes that many people: can one really speak of insignificant numbers who participate in online debates? A group of that size cannot easily be dismissed as a marginal phenomenon that does not concern ‘most people’. Likewise so-called ‘one campaign-groups’ may far outlive the initial cause. 

Who one studies, in which context, and how one studies them, and with what focus grossly influences what one finds. Even if many studies point to the conclusion that many forever hold their peace about politically controversial topics, this is unlikely to be the whole picture.  I believe that we must not make the mistake of arguing that ‘most people’ either remain silent, or shout their lungs out online. The truth is probably a boring in-between, some people may stick to intimate relations when discussing contentious issues- while others seek a bigger audience for their involvement with the issues at hand. In fact, which issues are at hand are key. Some topics are particularly well-suited to evoke more public responses.  

Trigger Themes

Topics such as religion, immigration, and climate have been identified as so-called trigger themes, meaning that the topics in themselves mobilise involvement. These are topics that many people care about and have an opinion about or an emotional attachment to. I do not mean to underscore a simplistic conceptualization of rationality as opposite to emotionality, but simply to acknowledge the role of emotion in successfully mobilising scores of people when trigger themes are thrown into a debate. Certain topics are well-suited to make people speak out, and as I have argued elsewhere we can even talk of a ‘Spiral of Speaking out’. Particular topics appear to engage the greater public. Topics such as the visibility of religion in public space appear to be such trigger topics for the very reason that they appear to tug at the core identity issues for many of those who participate in the debates. Regardless of whether participants see themselves as religious, secularist or atheist, their own sense of identity feeds into their modes of debating online, and their conceptualizations of the nation functions as an extension of their own worldview.  In my current ethnographic study of a Facebook group with declared leanings to a conservative form of Christianity, many of the online discussions about the public visibility of religion transpire into heated religio-political debates with strong elements of anti-Muslim, xenophobic, anti-secular and anti-atheist sentiments.  Intriguingly, it seems that people who get drawn to the group do not necessarily support the original cause or worldview, and may have a variety of motivations for being involved, ranging from ideological or religious crusade to mundane boredom. 

The Role of Emotion

One of the reasons why trigger themes make people tick is because they tend to evoke emotional responses. People form opinions based on emotive reactions to journalism and topics in general. As the media scholar Liesbet van Zoonen has been arguing for many years, politics is not divorced from emotion - and it makes little sense to set emotionality up against rationality. From a researcher perspective, there is the added danger of labelling everyone who holds an opinion close to your own ‘rational’ and deeming everyone else ‘irrational’. The point to be made here is that what people feel about religion shapes what they think about religion, and at times it is difficult to separate the two from each other. Nonetheless, emotive responses and modes of argumentation can foster strong expressions of affect which lead to what some scholars have labelled spiralling argumentation. Spiralling argumentation shares traits with the scandalous and adheres to the sensationalist principles of newsworthiness. In a word, people are often drawn to the spectacular.  

What characterizes spiralling argumentation is that it rides on emotion and devotes itself to the spectacular. At times the spectacular evolves into spreading fabricated news stories designed to foster emotive reactions or political support. 

The ‘Spiral of Speaking out’

The recent boom of studies that breathe new life into the ‘Spiral of Silence’ hypothesis might reflect research slants founded on specific methodological choices and research designs, rather than provide an accurate description of the ways in which ‘most people’ zip their mouths in public spaces. I wonder whether the ‘Spiral of Silence’ is an example of metaphor that sticks, despite its lack of accuracy. In my view, it is time to multiply the number of sticky metaphors in circulation about the ways people engage with contentious issues– if our research is to reflect the complex reality we live in – rather than a one metaphor fits ‘most people’ template. A point in case, if we must speak of the ‘Spiral of Silence’, then we must also speak of the ‘Spiral of Speaking out’, and the politics of entertainment involved in battling out certain topics online.