Spiral of silence

The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The theory asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority.

Basic framework

The spiral of silence begins with fear of reprisal or isolation, and escalates from there.The fear of isolation is the centrifugal force that accelerates the spiral of silence. Individuals use what is described as “an innate ability” or quasi-statistical sense to gauge public opinion. The Mass media play a large part in determining what the dominant opinion is, since our direct observation is limited to a small percentage of the population. The mass media have an enormous impact on how public opinion is portrayed, and can dramatically impact an individual’s perception about where public opinion lies, whether or not that portrayal is factual. Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as a dynamic process, in which predictions about public opinion become fact as mass media’s coverage of the majority opinion becomes the status quo, and the minority becomes less likely to speak out. The theory, however, only applies to moral or opinion issues, not issues that can be proven right or wrong using facts (if there, in fact, exists a distinction between fact and value).

Noelle-Neumann describes public opinion as controversial opinions that one is able to express in public without becoming isolated. Noelle-Neumann has come up with ways to measure these controversial opinions. The first is the measuring of how the individual perceives the climate of opinion and what they believe its future development will be. The second measurement of public opinion is through one’s willingness to stand up for their opinion or lack of willingness depending on the majority and minority trends. Readiness to join in conversations under different circumstances shows the degree of confidence of being on the majority side. This confidence then influences the spiraling process. The third is to measure whether the opposite sides of each viewpoint ignore the other party and only listen to their side’s viewpoint.

Crucial points to the theory

1) People have a fear of being rejected by those in their social environment, which is called “fear of isolation.”

2) People are constantly observing the behaviors of those around them, and seeing which gain approval and disapproval from society.

3) People unconsciously issue their own threats of isolation by showing signals of approval or disapproval.

4) Threats of isolation are avoided by a person’s tendency to refrain from making a statement about something they think might attract objections.

5) People are more willing to publicly state things that they believe will be accepted positively.

6) The spiral effect begins because when people who are seen as representing majority opinion, often authority figures, speak out confidently. The opposition feels a greater sense of fear of isolation and is further convinced to remain silent, since they perceive themselves to be in the minority. The feelings continue to grow in either direction exponentially.

7) A strong moral component is necessary for the issue to activate the spiral.

8 ) If there is a social consensus, the spiral will not be activated. There must be two opposing forces.

9) The mass media has a strong influence on this process.

10) Fear and threat of isolation are subconscious processes.

11) The spiral of silence only “holds a sway” over the public for a limited time.

12) If a topic activates the spiral of silence, this means that the issue is a great threat to social cohesion.

Uses and limitations

It is as much a measure of protection as it is one of oppression. Since it only applies to moral issues, which tend to evoke passionate responses in even the most reserved individuals, it can be used to contain social unrest over highly controversial topics. Though it can aid in keeping civil order, attempts to employ it knowingly are essentially methods of manipulation and coercion.

Overcoming the silence

The theory explains a vocal minority (the complement of the silent majority) by stating that people who are highly educated, or who have greater affluence, and the few other cavalier individuals who do not fear isolation, are likely to speak out regardless of public opinion. It further states that this minority is a necessary factor of change while the compliant majority is a necessary factor of stability, with both being a product of evolution. There is a vocal minority, which remains at the top of the spiral in defiance of threats of isolation. This theory calls these vocal minorities the hardcore or the avant-garde. Hardcore nonconformists are “people who have already been rejected for their beliefs and have nothing to lose by speaking out.” While the avant-garde are “the intellectuals, artists, and reformers in the isolated minority who speak out because they are convinced they are ahead of the times.”

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