On a daily basis, people use a variety of technologies that help them share different views and thoughts among each other. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, enables individuals to share their feelings/ideas and compound public opinion. This paper conducts an analysis to present a better understanding of the influence that Facebook, Twitter, and other types of social media have on social and political institutions. This analysis is based on Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory and Habermas’s public sphere theory that deal with different aspects of media and the influence they have. It is argued that these theories are relevant in relation to an expression of public opinion with the use of Facebook and Twitter.
The public sphere and theories concerning a public opinion is an important topic. Furthermore, social media technologies have their influence upon the societies and politics due to the fact that the Internet is a distribution medium (Iosifidis 2016, p. 21). When using Facebook and Twitter people participate in activities that may be defined as the “electronic governance” (the term is described by Iosifidis and Wheeler). Habermas’s theory of the public sphere may be applied to help understand this governance. The theory emphasizes the relationship between different types of social media and democracy, using the example of Morrocco and people who felt empowered by the social media. Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory is the key notion that helps to assess the events and public responses. In the past, the Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory was used to examine the role of the print press, television, and radio broadcasts. Presently, it is Twitter and Facebook that affect the society the most and are in the center of the Noelle-Neumann’s theory.
The diversity and impact of social media and networking are the matters of research of many scientists (for example, Gearhart and Zhang (2014, 2015)), who state that the role of media has shifted. Media “have become the primary focus and force for today’s public sphere” and the foundation of the spiral of silence theory (Butsch 2007, p. 3). According to McDonald, Glynn, Kim, and Ostman “since its introduction … the spiral of silence theory has become one of the most-researched communication theories that explain public opinion formation in a media environment” (Hopkins 2015). It is also important to comprehend the peculiarities of the public sphere because they connect people to the economy, politics, and culture through new and social media. In 2011, social media in Morocco had reshaped the public engagement and the government that recognized the potential of Facebook and Twitter. However, the effect was not sustainable. The social movements in Morocco have collided with the government and turned to be implausible in the eyes of the majority. The spiral of silence theory and the public sphere theory are used to explain this phenomenon.
The Spiral of Silence Theory and the Public Sphere Theory
An analysis of the spiral of silence theory and the public sphere requires a combination of approaches that include the different aspects of the matter from a communicative perspective. In the realm of social media, people interact by creating constructive images that represent and express opinions. Taking this into consideration, it may be said that it is almost impossible to express public opinion without the presence of media. The idea is supported by Fuchs (2014), who believes that communication and media are important features of “all social systems” (p. 66). Other scholars, for instance, Hopkins (2015) has applied the spiral of silence theory to study social networking in the view of the media being the “forth estate” of power (Iosifidis 2016, p. 15). The spiral of silence theory has emerged from the personal experience of Noelle-Neumann, who has described election in Germany. The public was intimidated by two representatives of power, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in 1965 (Hopkins 2015). Different national polls have predicted that the Social Democrats would win. Noelle-Neumann was surprised by the fact that “the expectation of a Christian Democratic victory increased steadily when actual voting intentions remained unchanged” (Hopkins 2015). Thus, Noelle-Neumann concluded that individuals adapt their opinion to the prevailing expectations. In this case, behavior patterns of people are regulated by their fear of being isolated (Chen 2011, p. 7). Generally, under the influence of fear of isolation, individuals adapt their opinions to the position of the majority.
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Noelle-Neumann’s theory was implemented into a research conducted by Dashti, Al-Abdullah and Johar (2015) who concentrated on a participation of the Twitter users in the political discourse. Gearhart and Zhang reviewed the theory of the spiral of silence in the context of the social media environment. They concluded that the theory is valid in analyzing online opinions. Social media illustrate that the spiral of silence theory describes people’s opinions and the ways they are affected by other people. In their works, Hopkins (2015) and Sale (n.d.) establish the connections between the theory and social and civic issues.
Apart from the concept of the spiral of silence, the public sphere theory is also effective in comprehending the public opinion. It is worth mentioning that Habermas’s theory “is grounded in Marxian political theory” (Fuchs 2014, p. 181). Habermas has conceptualized the public sphere as a two-dimensional notion. He suggested that there are empirical (a system of verbal and written interaction) and normative (a forum that helps people to compel a public authority) dimensions (Smuts 2010, p. 15). According to Haas (2004), the introduction of the public sphere theory by Habermas has “inspired numerous works on deliberative democracy” conducted by Cohen, Dryzek, Fishkin, and others. Other theorists have also emphasized this connection over the years (Zaid 2009; Bastos, Charpentier & Mercea 2015; Fuchs 2014; and others). Scientists also focus on mediated communication and the mass media-dominated environment that is based on Habermas’s concept of the public sphere that describes public communication and deliberation (Bruns & Highfield 2016, p. 98). Presently, many scientists choose to relay on the public sphere theory, in connection to the spiral of silence theory in an effort to analyze public opinion.
Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory helps to comprehend the main aspects of a collective view that dominate in society during a certain period of time. According to Noelle-Neumann, the spiral of silence theory is a metaphoric representation of individuals’ perception of reality and the opinions that appear to follow the tendency when some views dominate and when others are “on the downgrade” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 44). Additionally, “the tendency of the one to speak up and the other to be silent starts off a spiraling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the prevailing one” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 44). Hopkins (2015) claims that the theory illustrates the reality of ideas when “the majority opinion is at the top of a “cork-screw,” “screwing-down” deviant opinions until they are effectively invisible.” As a matter of fact “the media play a crucial role in encouraging the spiral of silence among those who hold a minority view” (Dashti et al. 2015, p. 45). The theory is illustrated on the figure one.
Noelle-Neumann defined the four key points of the theory that are applicable to social media:
- The “quasi-statistical” organ. It is an element that is applied when there is a need to monitor the dominant opinion by observing a social environment and “assessing the distribution of opinions for and against” an opinion (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 44). A “quasi-statistical” organ includes an evaluation of such parameters as the urgency, strength, and the chances of opinions to prevail. It is also a simple task to follow the tendencies using Facebook and Twitter. ”
- The public opinion that triggers a “spiraling” process. Noelle-Neumann has described public opinion as “the dominating opinion which compels compliance of attitude and behavior in that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation, the politician with loss of popular support” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 44). Therefore, the author of the theory explained that public opinion forms during an interaction of people in their social environments, especially in Facebook and Twitter. This practice certainly triggers a “spiraling” that is the “process which increasingly establishes [a dominant] opinion as the prevailing one” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 44). Spiraling appears when people are afraid to share their views under the threat of becoming socially isolated.
- The fear of social isolation. Noelle-Neumann (1974) argues that “voicing the opposite opinion, or acting in public accordingly, incurs the danger of isolation” (p. 44). Subconsciously, people tend to be a part of society. Thus, when individuals understand that they may be excluded from a social circle (for example, be deleted from a list of friends), they start to adapt to the opinion of the majority. It should be emphasized that fear of isolation is a foundation of the spiral of silence.
- A future opinion. Noelle-Neumann describes the possibility of voicing an opinion as a part of a “correlation between the present and the future assessment” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 48). Thus, in case an opinion is regarded to as the prevailing one, it is believed to be the dominant idea in the future and individuals start to support it actively.
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These four aspects constitute the basis of the spiral of silence theory. Additionally, scientists included social conformity to the theory. Noelle-Neumann studied Asch’s experiments on social conformity. Noelle-Neumann was interested in the link between a social acceptance and the opinion of the majority (Nam 2002). This notion is relevant in relation to social media. Noelle-Neumann has defined the mass media as “the system which the individual uses to gain information about the environment” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 50). Therefore, social media is a more complicated system that responds to privacy, censorship, and freedom of speech. As a matter of fact, social media users feel more liberated and are able to express their ideas more freely, in comparison to, for example, journalists on national television. Iosifidis and Wheeler (2015) have compared social media to “an electronic agora” of the modern age.
The Case of the “Moroccan Spring”
As a result of an increasing popularity of such sites as Facebook and Twitter, minorities and marginalized groups have a voice and a freedom of speech. It should be noted that the spiral of silence theory has frequently been researched because “communication on social media is seemingly capable of amplifying onsite demonstrations” (Bastos et al., 2015). Moreover, social media facilitate a creation of social moments and various platforms for people with same ideas take part in discussions. It is “through the use of additional communication features offered by social media platforms – such as Facebook groups and pages, and Twitter hashtags” that people articulate the most crucial ideas and form groups of support (Bruns & Highfield 2016, p. 21). Before the introduction of social media and the Internet, social movements and petitions took place.
Social movements were a part of societies in the past. They are “an organized effort by a significant number of people to change (or resist change in) some major aspect or aspects” (Scott & Marshal 2009). For example, during the World War “print propaganda stirred debate among intellectuals” and pushed the public opinion beyond the limits of tolerance (Butch 2007, p. 1). People used to read news in magazines, discuss them on streets and slowly form their opinions. However, in relation to Morocco this approach was not very successful. The print press has existed in the country for almost two centuries (Media and Society in Morocco 2011, p. 15). However, it was not until Facebook and Twitter have become popular that social movements became efficient. Some say that social media are an integral part of democratization. Nevertheless, “democratization of the press could never be achieved as long as the public discourse that brings monarchical powers and actions into question is illegal” (Tayebi 2015, p. 1). This is one of the reasons of the social movements in Morocco that are regarded to as the “Arab Spring.”
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The term “Arab Spring” defines movements that have emerged on the African continent and led to a number of changes. The wave of movements, protests and riots has started in “Tunisia and Egypt arrived to Morocco in 2011 paving the way to unprecedented organized mass-protests all over the country” (Tayebi 2015, p. 1). In Morocco, protesters were interested in liberation of the press. As a result, King Mohammed VI has “promised in a televised speech… to introduce “radical” and “genuine” constitutional reforms that would democratize the country” (Tayebi 2015, p. 1). To some extent, his promise was fulfilled, but soon after the announcement, some people changed their demands. This shift has divided the movement because activists started to debate and lacked consensus (Rachidi 2015). The minority lost their grasp of reality and, according to the public sphere theory, the public opinion was formed by the majority. Thus, “social movements continue to change, so too do the methods sociologists use in analyzing them” but the spiral of silence theory remains relevant (Christiansen 2009, p. 5).
To evaluate the magnitude of social movements, it is important to provide some statistical data regarding the activity of the social media users in Morocco and their participation in movements. Thus, Morocco is a “country with a population of 32 million (of whom are less than 30, with a national average age of 26.5 years)” (Media and Society in Morocco 2011, p. 15). Over 60% of people are considered to be the most active part of society. According to the spiral of silence theory, “men, younger persons, and the middle and upper classes are generally the most likely to speak out” (Noelle-Neumann 1974, p. 46). Additionally, “Morocco has frequently been characterized by external observers as the most forward looking and dynamic Arab state in a region driven by conflict and stasis” (Maghraoui 2009, p. 143). In 2011, during the “Moroccan Spring”, a number of new Facebook users was 590,360 and 26,666 new users of Twitter (‘The Role of Social Media in Arab Women’s Empowerment’ 2014, p. 13). Among the total number of Facebook users, there are 62% men and 38% women from Morocco (‘The Role of Social Media’ 2014, p. 16). Gender is important due to cultural stereotypes and prejudice. Also, it is a general tendency, according to which “in countries that witnessed uprisings or popular movements- there are slight gender differences between men’s and women’s uses of social media during the “Arab Spring” according to the survey respondents” (‘The Role of Social Media’ 2014, p. 8). Nevertheless, “a larger percentage of Arab women… used social media to organize actions and manage activists” (‘The Role of Social Media’ 2014, p. 8). According to the public sphere theory, social media are responsible for the formation of public opinion and the movement was no longer homogenously constituted (Brouwer & Bartels 2014, p. 13). The “Arab Spring” is partially a result of social media that had “the powerful network effect…which took place in countries that had allowed for little dissenting media discourse – and where people had therefore long remained politically isolated” (Wihbey 2015). People in Morocco had access to sharing ideas online, but an analysis of over ten million Facebook conversations showed that “the majority of the Moroccan conversations on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter revolved around socio-economic concerns as opposed to political complaints” (Pilling n.d.). Even though social media allowed young men and women to have more freedom of expression, when it comes to politics, the “Moroccan Spring” failed.
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The spiral of silence theory explains that active movement participants fell silent because they formed a minority that was under a threat of social isolation. They supported the monarch. Therefore, many activists chose to not share their opinion. Thus, it may be said that “Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs” (Miller 2014). People are reluctant to express their thoughts when their ideas differ from those of their friends. Sometimes, minorities are suppressed by social media. This situation constitutes the chilling effect. The term “chilling effect” basically refers to a decrease of the participants in certain activities. Furthermore, “a chilling effect occurs where one is deterred from undertaking a certain action X as a result of some possible consequence Y” (Youn 2013, p. 1481). The effect is an indirect consequence of the diversity within the public sphere that is followed the silence of minorities. Morocco has managed to avoid “outright revolt during the Arab Spring, many of the social and economic conditions that precipitated conflict still plague the country today and could lead to unrest in the future” (Verlin 2014). Therefore, many scientists continue to follow the public opinion that is being formed on Facebook and Twitter.
The spiral of silence theory is being criticized by some academics. One of the most salient points stressed by contributors is the fact that the theory does account for cultural and individual factors. There are different circumstances that influence a decision of a person whether to express an opinion or withhold from this opinion. Personal traits may be responsible for silence (Gearhart & Zhang 2014). As for the gender differences, in some cultures, women’s “perception of language, not public opinion, forces them to remain quiet” (Hopkins 2015). However, this is not the case of the “Moroccan Spring”. In Morocco, women more often participate in an organization of movements than men do. There are always exceptions to the spiral of silence theory. Noelle-Neumann argues that there are hard-core nonconformists who have been previously rejected by the majority, and avant-garde people represented by reformers and intellectuals, who are already isolated from the majority (‘Can We Speak in/with Silence?’ 2016). Their effective presence in cyberspace through social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter strengthen the minority.
In the light of the “Moroccan Spring,” it is a matter of rapid transformations of various aspects of social media that are analyzed on the basis of social and political ramifications. In this context, the spiral of silence theory and the public sphere theory account for new and social media and amplify the role of public opinion in the network society. The use of social media has its ambiguous results that may be defined by the activity of majorities and minorities. The outcome of their cooperation is evaluated with the help of the spiral of silence theory, which suggests that the influence of Facebook and Twitter is immense. However, there are certain social rules (for example, an isolation of unpopular views), which construct public opinion and affect social movements. Thus, the “Moroccan Spring” was chilled due to the fact that activists adapted their opinions to the most accepted views.