Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist developed the spiral of silence theory in 1974. She stated that individuals and social groups would exclude or isolate members based on their opinion. This factor limit people from expressing their minority opinion as they feared they would be isolated in public (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). The concepts are analyzed in “Spiral of silence online: How online communication affects opinion climate perception and opinion expression regarding the climate change debate” by Pablo Porten-Chee and Christiane Eilders. The article assesses the influence of social media and user-generated content (UGC) on opinion climate and perception (Porten-Cheé & Eilders, 2015, p. 143). Opinion climate perception associates cause and effect, which prompt human expression to be high in anonymous and low threshold situations, and lower in one-on-one communication because of the unwillingness to share an unpopular opinion in public.
The study proposed to analyze the influence of mass media and UGC on the perception of the opinion climate and opinion expression on people’s willingness to speak publicly (P.146). The authors formulated four hypotheses for the study which included, H4. “Willingness to speak out is highest under anonymous or low threshold “like-button” conditions, and is lowest under face-to-face conditions” (Porten-Cheé & Eilders, 2015, p.146). An online diary setting was used to collect data on the opinion on climate change in Germany (Porten-Cheé & Eilders, 2015). 1163 participants, between 18 and 50 years of age were selected via screening blogs, Facebook groups, and a commercial online-access panel that incorporated mass media and user-generated content. The study results supported H4 where people were more open to expressing their opinion in anonymous situations (p.148). However, the study was also met by limitation on its design which led to mixed findings on the empirical research. The research disregarded public opinion dynamics, coherent operationalization, and time constraint (Porten-Cheé & Eilders, 2015). These factors lead to significant changes to the results of the study especially with the influence mass media and UGC has on the public opinion. It was also unclear as to whether the discord between perceived opinion climate and personal opinion was an inhibition to airing opinions in digital forums.
The article presented a great potential for future research through its incorporation of critical aspects such as using a real-world design, which increased the external validity (Porten-Cheé & Eilders, 2015). Most studies on the spiral of silence theory uses experimental designs which cannot achieve a similar external reality as the online diary study used in the article. Studying the spiral of silence theory was supported by the media measurement in the article, also combining individual media exposure with content analyses through the surveying data (Porten-Cheé & Eilders, 2015). These aspects provide a new data collection, and measure concepts that can be utilized for future studies on the theory and reports on individual behaviors.
The spiral of silence theory has been incorporated into popular culture through various media. I find movies to be instrumental in highlighting the theory’s concepts and educating people on its influence on society. Mean Girls is a famous movie from 2004 which starred Cady (Lindsay Lohan), a new student at the suburban Illinois high school, and Regina (Rachel McAdams), the most popular girl in school and leader of “the plastics” (Waters, 2004). I felt the school dynamics provided an avenue to analyze the spiral of silence through various groups such as “the plastics,” the cheerleaders, jocks, cool kids, and stoners. The groups are socially organized to reinforce the public opinion on how each member should be treated in the community, which presents a challenge for any person who wants to speak out about the groups, as the view would be unpopular in the setting leading to isolation.
“The plastics” represented a popular group that violated other social groups, which are afraid to air their opinions because of the fear of isolation. Neumann (1974) highlights this factor in the theory, a common occurrence in schools where bullies are allowed to reign terror without any objections because of the fear of isolation. For example, Regina narrates to Cady how she ruined Janis’s high school reputation by spreading the rumor of her being a lesbian. However, she still goes unpunished, and no one holds her accountable for her actions because of the popular opinion of her status in the school (Waters, 2004). This example highlights how people are reluctant to share an unpopular opinion, even when another person is at risk of isolation. The minority opinion is still not shared if a similar consequence is likely to follow. The movie takes a different approach towards the ending by having people apologize by sharing the minority opinions and relieving themselves of the burden. While the trend exhibited in the real world is contrary to this approach, it still provided an insight into how owning one’s opinions could influence relationships.
A minority opinion is likely to be shared in anonymity or in a position where the view is considered popular by the audience, reinforcing the safety net a person has by sharing their opinion. For example, Gretchen confides in Cady after her outburst regarding Cesar in class, reflecting how she felt towards Regina’s treatment of the clique. Gretchen is tired of how Regina treats them, but she is afraid of speaking out about it because she would be banished from “the plastics” (Waters, 2004). The minority opinion becomes popular only in a space where the majority agrees with the shared view. However, events of speaking out against Regina have consequences when she prints out secrets of each individual and distributes them to spark chaos in the school (Waters, 2004). This scene highlights a significant fear people have in sharing their unpopular opinion as it could lead to chaotic isolations in a public setting.
The spiral of silence theory concepts emerges in real-life settings during interactions with individuals and social groups. For students, these aspects are popular in interactions between parents and their children. For instance, Patrick, a friend of mine, had issues with his parent’s co-curricular activities selection. His parents wanted him to take up more physical activities, while he preferred learning activities because of his love of reading. However, Patrick was afraid to share his opinion because of his family’s athletic background. He struggled with physical activities while trying to maintain the family’s traditions. His struggles also affected his academic performance and forced him to take summer classes to make up for the poor grade. Patrick’s fear of isolation was reinforced by the popular opinion shared by the family on the benefits of physical activities. Patrick would be better suited to taking learning activities. Still, since the opinion is unpopular in his family, he resorted to remaining silent about his ambitions rather than be considered different by his family.
The spiral of silence is a fundamental theory in studying communication concepts through its applicable nature in real-life settings. Both the article and movie highlight significant areas in its application that can be used in research and studies to improve communications.
Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence a theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24(2), 43-51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1974.tb00367.x
Porten-Cheé, P., & Eilders, C. (2015). Spiral of silence online: How online communication affects opinion climate perception and opinion expression regarding the climate change debate. Studies in Communication Sciences, 15(1), 143-150. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scoms.2015.03.002
Waters, M. (Director). (2004). Mean Girls [Lorne Michaels Productions]. Paramount Pictures.