This week, a new report from the Pew Research Center claimed that people who use social media are less likely to express their personal opinions on hot topics, even offline. It explains that people are less likely to post anything controversial if they’re not sure their audience agrees.
Well, Facebook isn’t buying it.
In a Facebook post published late Wednesday night, Winter Mason, a Facebook researcher, broke down the study and explained why it may not be so true.
Pew asked 1,801 Americans a bunch of questions about their internet use and the Snowden-NSA surveillance story, including whether or not they would be willing to join a social media discussion on the topic. Only 42% of Facebook or Twitter users said they would be willing to post about that topic online.
The survey also found that people who tended to log into Facebook multiple times in a day were half as likely to discuss the Snowden case at a public meeting as a non-Facebook user. If, however, they believed their Facebook audience agreed with their opinion, they were twice as likely to join a discussion.
“Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, told the Associated Press. “This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend.”
Facebook’s Mason thinks the Pew report jumped to conclusions a bit too quickly.
First of all, Mason explains, the phenomenon of people not wanting to express themselves to unlikeminded audiences is a universal reality, one that is not unique to the Internet.
“The tendency to avoid information that disagrees with your viewpoint has been a known effect since before the Internet existed (selective exposure), and this study concludes that there is no evidence that people overcome this tendency,” he explains in the post.
He also adds another factor that may be preventing people from posting their opinions on Snowden on Facebook: They may be wary of government surveillance.
“If people think that the government’s spying on them online, it doesn’t seem that surprising that people might not want to debate the issue online,” he said.
Mason also finds fault with the argument that Facebook activity affects offline discussions. While the study shows Facebook users may be less willing to “join a discussion” on Snowden with friends at a restaurant, they’re just as likely as non-Facebook users to discuss the topic at work or a family dinner.
Twitter users, on the other hand, are less likely to discuss the topic at work, but no less likely than non-users to talk about it with friends at a restaurant, or on Facebook.
Mason claims this is more revealing about the kinds of material people post on one social media platform versus another.
“The topic of Pew’s research is an important one and we should welcome efforts to look at the impact of technology on public debate,” Mason concludes. “For now this study seems to raise more questions than answers. I look forward to a vigorous debate about this on Facebook.”
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