September 18, 2014

Social media and people's hesitation to speak out

Social media suppresses debate, believe it!

A recent survey by Pew Research Center finds that people tend to keep quiet and hesitate in discussing controversial topics. It goes against the conventional wisdom that people tend to say things on social media what they’d not say in real life.

Out of about 1800 U.S. adults interviewed in the survey, 86% were comfortable with discussing government’s surveillance programme in public places, workplaces etc., but only 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to talk about it online.

ITB’s own observation has been that when on Facebook and blogs, most people  discuss controversial subjects only within their own group of friends and sober down their opinions to suit that of the group. Even when a highly controversial topic starts trending, a good number of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ usually do not support the controversial stand but it is only a small number of committed guys who keep the controversy alive.

The trend to keep sober and quiet might be because most of us do not want to offend others or be seen controversial. We seem to feel that a controversial stand makes us unpopular, especially when others are behaving soberly. 

Another, and quite a big, reason could be the fear of being caught on the wrong foot. Government officials are not likely to criticise official policies, all employees would hesitate in talking about their employers, children would not say things that their parents might find out and would not approve of... So, many things that are being talked about, some being hotly debated, are either not discussed at all or are discussed mildly on the social media.

Why, then, do we find instant and viral social buzz around controversial topics? We have one (and there could be many more) quick explanation with this illustration: Roadside tea shops in India are known to generate a lot of political discussion, especially in Kerala and Bengal. People debate, argue, fight and shout over their pet themes but all this dies down when people leave the tea shop. On social media, the debate may lose steam but it remains there and can be searched, hyperlinked, re-published and talked about any number of times. Perhaps this curation, easy availability and visibility creates new waves of popularity when old waves of recede. This, perhaps, leads to a huge and constant-looking wave and makes us think that people who are otherwise shy of discussing politics and controversial topics are more vocal on social media.