Tag: Media

The Spiral of Silence

Our desire to fit in with others means we don’t always say what we think. We only express opinions that seem safe. Here’s how the spiral of silence works and how we can discover what people really think.


Be honest: How often do you feel as if you’re really able to express your true opinions without fearing judgment? How often do you bite your tongue because you know you hold an unpopular view? How often do you avoid voicing any opinion at all for fear of having misjudged the situation?

Even in societies with robust free speech protections, most people don’t often say what they think. Instead they take pains to weigh up the situation and adjust their views accordingly. This comes down to the “spiral of silence,” a human communication theory developed by German researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1960s and ’70s. The theory explains how societies form collective opinions and how we make decisions surrounding loaded topics.

Let’s take a look at how the spiral of silence works and how understanding it can give us a more realistic picture of the world.


How the spiral of silence works

According to Noelle-Neumann’s theory, our willingness to express an opinion is a direct result of how popular or unpopular we perceive it to be. If we think an opinion is unpopular, we will avoid expressing it. If we think it is popular, we will make a point of showing we think the same as others.

Controversy is also a factor—we may be willing to express an unpopular uncontroversial opinion but not an unpopular controversial one. We perform a complex dance whenever we share views on anything morally loaded.

Our perception of how “safe” it is to voice a particular view comes from the clues we pick up, consciously or not, about what everyone else believes. We make an internal calculation based on signs like what the mainstream media reports, what we overhear coworkers discussing on coffee breaks, what our high school friends post on Facebook, or prior responses to things we’ve said.

We also weigh up the particular context, based on factors like how anonymous we feel or whether our statements might be recorded.

As social animals, we have good reason to be aware of whether voicing an opinion might be a bad idea. Cohesive groups tend to have similar views. Anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion risks social exclusion or even ostracism within a particular context or in general. This may be because there are concrete consequences, such as losing a job or even legal penalties. Or there may be less official social consequences, like people being less friendly or willing to associate with you. Those with unpopular views may suppress them to avoid social isolation.

Avoiding social isolation is an important instinct. From an evolutionary biology perspective, remaining part of a group is important for survival, hence the need to at least appear to share the same views as anyone else. The only time someone will feel safe to voice a divergent opinion is if they think the group will share it or be accepting of divergence, or if they view the consequences of rejection as low. But biology doesn’t just dictate how individuals behave—it ends up shaping communities. It’s almost impossible for us to step outside of that need for acceptance.

A feedback loop pushes minority opinions towards less and less visibility—hence why Noelle-Neumann used the word “spiral.” Each time someone voices a majority opinion, they reinforce the sense that it is safe to do so. Each time someone receives a negative response for voicing a minority opinion, it signals to anyone sharing their view to avoid expressing it.


An example of the spiral of silence

A 2014 Pew Research survey of 1,801 American adults examined the prevalence of the spiral of silence on social media. Researchers asked people about their opinions on one public issue: Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of US government surveillance of citizens’ phones and emails. They selected this issue because, while controversial, prior surveys suggested a roughly even split in public opinion surrounding whether the leaks were justified and whether such surveillance was reasonable.

Asking respondents about their willingness to share their opinions in different contexts highlighted how the spiral of silence plays out. 86% of respondents were willing to discuss the issue in person, but only about half as many were willing to post about it on social media. Of the 14% who would not consider discussing the Snowden leaks in person, almost none (0.3%) were willing to turn to social media instead.

Both in person and online, respondents reported far greater willingness to share their views with people they knew agreed with them—three times as likely in the workplace and twice as likely in a Facebook discussion.


The implications of the spiral of silence

The end result of the spiral of silence is a point where no one publicly voices a minority opinion, regardless of how many people believe it. The first implication of this is that the picture we have of what most people believe is not always accurate. Many people nurse opinions they would never articulate to their friends, coworkers, families, or social media followings.

A second implication is that the possibility of discord makes us less likely to voice an opinion at all, assuming we are not trying to drum up conflict. In the aforementioned Pew survey, people were more comfortable discussing a controversial story in person than online. An opinion voiced online has a much larger potential audience than one voiced face to face, and it’s harder to know exactly who will see it. Both of these factors increase the risk of someone disagreeing.

If we want to gauge what people think about something, we need to remove the possibility of negative consequences. For example, imagine a manager who often sets overly tight deadlines, causing immense stress to their team. Everyone knows this is a problem and discusses it among themselves, recognizing that more realistic deadlines would be motivating, and unrealistic ones are just demoralizing. However, no one wants to say anything because they’ve heard the manager say that people who can’t handle pressure don’t belong in that job. If the manager asks for feedback about their leadership style, they’re not going to hear what they need to hear if they know who it comes from.

A third implication is that what seems like a sudden change in mainstream opinions can in fact be the result of a shift in what is acceptable to voice, not in what people actually think. A prominent public figure getting away with saying something controversial may make others feel safe to do the same. A change in legislation may make people comfortable saying what they already thought.

For instance, if recreational marijuana use is legalized where someone lives, they might freely remark to a coworker that they consume it and consider it harmless. Even if that was true before the legislation change, saying so would have been too fraught, so they might have lied or avoided the topic. The result is that mainstream opinions can appear to change a great deal in a short time.

A fourth implication is that highly vocal holders of a minority opinion can end up having a disproportionate influence on public discourse. This is especially true if that minority is within a group that already has a lot of power.

While this was less the case during Noelle-Neumann’s time, the internet makes it possible for a vocal minority to make their opinions seem far more prevalent than they actually are—and therefore more acceptable. Indeed, the most extreme views on any spectrum can end up seeming most normal online because people with a moderate take have less of an incentive to make themselves heard.

In anonymous environments, the spiral of silence can end up reversing itself, making the most fringe views the loudest.

Marshall McLuhan: The Here And Now

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”


In this passage from Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan reminds us of the difficulty that frictionless connection brings with it and how technological media advances have worked not to preserve but rather to ‘abolish history.’

Perfection of the means of communication has meant instantaneity. Such an instantaneous network of communication is the body-mind unity of each of us. When a city or a society achieves a diversity and equilibrium of awareness analogous to the body-mind network, it has what we tend to regard as a high culture.

But the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible, and for many reasons. Radio extends the range of the casual speaking voice, but it forbids that many should speak. And when what is said has such range of control, it is forbidden to speak any but the most acceptable words and notions. Power and control are in all cases paid for by loss of freedom and flexibility.

Today the entire globe has a unity in point of mutual interawareness, which exceeds in rapidity the former flow of information in a small city—say Elizabethan London with its eighty or ninety thousand inhabitants. What happens to existing societies when they are brought into such intimate contact by press, picture stories, newsreels, and jet propulsion? What happens when the Neolithic Eskimo is compelled to share the time and space arrangements of technological man? What happens in our minds as we become familiar with the diversity of human cultures which have come into existence under innumerable circumstances, historical and geographical? Is what happens comparable to that social revolution which we call the American melting pot?

When the telegraph made possible a daily cross section of the globe transferred to the page of newsprint, we already had our mental melting pot for cosmic man—the world citizen.The mere format of the page of newsprint was more revolutionary in its intellectual and emotional consequences than anything that could be said about any part of the globe.

When we juxtapose news items from Tokyo, London, New York, Chile, Africa, and New Zealand, we are not just manipulating space. The events so brought together belong to cultures widely separated in time. The modern world abridges all historical times as readily as it reduces space. Everywhere and every age have become here and now. History has been abolished by our new media.

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Why Sites Like Gawker Manipulate You

“A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue.
That is predicated on its circulation and you know what the circulation depends on. …”
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler


Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, offers a penetrating look at the incentives of media.

Holiday, himself, is a practitioner of the dark arts of media manipulation and uses these techniques to make a living.

“Usually, it is a simple hustle,” Holiday writes. “Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.”

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the history of the press, which begins with the Party Press, moves on to the Yellow Press and ends with the Modern Press (aka Subscription Press). Holiday gives us this history lesson to explain how news outlets sold their product over the years.

The Party Press

The earliest forms of newspapers were a function of political parties. These were media outlets for party leaders to speak to party members, to give them the information they needed and wanted. … These papers were not some early version of Fox News. They usually were one-man shops. The editor-publisher-writer-printer was the dedicated steward of a very valuable service to that party in his town. The service was the ability to communicate ideas and information about important issues. …

This first stage of journalism was limited in its scope and impact. Because of the size and nature of its audience, the party press was not in the news business. They were in the editorial business. It was a different time and style, one that would be eclipsed by changes in technology and distribution.

The Yellow Press
Newspapers changed the moment that Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun in 1833. It was not so much his paper that changed everything but his way of selling it: on the street, one copy at a time. He hired the unemployed to hawk his papers and immediately solved a major problem that had plagued the party presses: unpaid subscriptions. Day’s “cash and carry” method offered no credit. You bought and walked. The Sun, with this simple innovation in distribution, invented the news and the newspaper. A thousand imitators followed.

These papers weren’t delivered to your doorstep. They had to be exciting and loud enough to fight for their sales on street corners, in barrooms, and at train stations. Because of the change in distribution methods and the increased speed of the printing press, newspapers truly became newspapers. Their sole aim was to get new information, get it to print faster, get it more exclusively than their competition. It meant the decline of the editorial. These papers relied on gossip. …

… He (James Gordon Bennett) knew that the newspaper’s role was “not to instruct but to startle.” His paper was anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-subtlety. These causes sold papers—to both people who loved them for it and people who hated them for it. And they bought and they bought.

… The need to sell every issue anew each day creates a challenge I call the “One-Off Problem.” Bennett’s papers solved it by getting attention however they could.

The first issue of Bennett’s Herald looked like this: First page—eye-catching but quickly digestible miscellany; Second page—the heart of the paper, editorial and news; Third page—local; Fourth page—advertising and filler. There was something for everyone. It was short, zesty. He later tried to emphasize quality editorial instead of disposable news by swapping the first two pages. The results were disastrous. He couldn’t sell papers on the street that way.

The One-Off Problem shaped more than just the design and layout of the newspaper. When news is sold on a one-off basis, publishers can’t sit back and let the news come to them. There isn’t enough of it, and what comes naturally isn’t exciting enough. So they must create the news that will sell their papers. When reporters were sent out to cover spectacles and events, they knew that their job was to cover the news when it was there and to make it up when it was not.

Speaking of the markers of “yellow journalism” (the One-Off problem), author of Yellow Journalism and media historian W.J. Campbell wrote:

As practiced more than 100 years ago, yellow journalism was a robust, enterprising genre characterized by these practices and features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As defined above and as practiced more than a century ago, yellow journalism could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are not infrequently raised about U.S. newspapers in the early twenty-first century.

Does any of that sound familiar? It should. Just take a look at Gawker and The Huffington Post. It’s the modern version of the One-Off problem. Instead of trying to sell you a copy of the newspaper by shouting on the street corner, today’s media want page views. In yellow journalism, headlines and promotions were more important than content.

So what happened after the yellow press? Holiday continues:

The Modern Stable Press

… Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, ushered in the next iteration of news. Ochs, like most great businessmen, understood that doing things differently was the way to great wealth. In the case of his newly acquired newspaper and the dirty, broken world of yellow journalism, he made the pronouncement that “decency meant dollars.”

He immediately set out to change the conditions that allowed the Bennett, Hearst, Pulitzer, and their imitators to flourish. He was the first publisher to solicit subscriptions via telephone. He offered contests to his salesman. He gave them quotas and goals for the number of subscribers they were expected to bring in.

He understood that people bought the yellow papers because they were cheap—and they didn’t have any other options. He felt that if they had a choice, they’d pick something better. He intended to be that option. First, he would match his competitors’ prices, and then he would deliver a paper that far surpassed the value implied by the low price.

It worked. When he dropped the price of the Times to one cent, circulation tripled in the first year. He would compete on content. He came up with the phrase “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as a mission statement for the editorial staff, two months after taking over the paper. The less known runner-up says almost as much: “All the World’s News, But Not a School for Scandal.”

Of course, the transition to the modern press wasn’t immediate. The subscription model, however, better aligned the incentives of the reader and newspaperman. Subscriptions change everything because readers who are misled unsubscribe. Content, not headlines, ruled the day.

“With Ochs’s move,” Holiday writes, “reputation began to matter more than notoriety. This was the era of the professionalization of journalism. “For the first time, it created a sense of obligation, not just to the paper and circulation, but also to the audience.”

While subscription journalism meant you didn’t have to peddle papers on the street, that didn’t make it a perfect system.

As the character Philip Marlowe observed in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye:

Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition—hard tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners.

We’ve had a good run. For a long time journalism was primarily sold via subscriptions (the stable press model) but now we’re moving quickly towards online à la Carte offerings. Journalism is no longer selling a package. Now each story is like a mini paper on the side of the street corner in the 1840’s trying to be heard over all of the other stories.

Eli Pariser wrote in The Filter Bubble:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

… Each article ascends the most-forwarded lists or dies an ignominious death on its own…. The attention economy is ripping the binding, and the pages that get read are the pages that are frequently the most topical, scandalous, and viral.

Think about how you consume media today. You don’t read one newspaper or blog. You read an assortment of many newspapers and blogs. And you don’t pay for any of it. The trust relationship is fractured. Competition centers around who can create the most read story. That means journalism becomes about what spreads – not what’s good.

MIT Media Studies Professor Henry Jenkins gives publishers and companies the following advice: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” Spreading is traffic. Traffic is money.

So what spreads?

Joseph Campbell and Katherine Milkman, of the Wharton School looked into over 7,000 articles that made it on to the New York Times Most Emailed List. They conclude:

Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral.

Basically, virality is determined by how much anger the article causes. Not all extreme emotions spread. Sadness doesn’t spread. Anger spreads. If anger spreads and financial incentives are somehow aligned to ‘page views’ more of our journalism will move towards what spreads.

Something analogous to Gresham’s Law can be found in the One-Off problem. If each story has to find its own audience (i.e., it’s no longer sold as a bundle) and compensation is derived from page views, we can expect incentives to favor a lot of low-cost articles with catchy headlines. In the end, we’re likely to get the stories we want to read — not the ones we should read. If not part of subscription, we’ll likely lose the in-depth reporting we’ve come to expect from some of the old media guards.

(side-note: I found the first part of Holiday’s book — where he explains how page view media works and how he manipulated the system — pretty good. The book is not without it’s “controversy” though. Overall it’s a great read for anyone interested in the economics of new media.)

(update: a previous version of this post (ironically) sourced a site that accused Holiday of mis-quoting a study. Holiday contacted me and it appears that he used an older version of the study, which did, in fact, contain the quote he referenced in his book. The other site was wrong and my verification process was lax. My bad.)


“If you’re not paying for something,
you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

— Andrew Lewis

Still curious? If you want to know more about how the media is manipulated, read Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.