Spiral of silence

The spiral of silence theory is a political science and mass communication theory proposed by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, which stipulates that individuals have a fear of isolation, which results from the idea that a social group or the society, in general, might isolate, neglect, or exclude members due to the members' opinions. This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions. Media is an important factor that relates to both the dominant idea and people's perception of the dominant idea. The assessment of one's social environment may not always correlate with reality.[1]

Background

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the German political scientist contributes the famous model called “Spiral of Silence”. In 1947 Neumann and her husband found “Public Opinion Organization” in German and also she was a President of “World Association for Public Opinion Research” from 1978 to 1980.

According to Shelly Neill, "Introduced in 1974, the Spiral of Silence Theory [...] explores hypotheses to determine why some groups remain silent while others are more vocal in forums of public disclosure."[2] The spiral of silence theory suggests that "people who have believed that they hold a minority viewpoint on a public issue will remain in the background where their communication will be restrained; those who believe that they hold a majority viewpoint will be more encouraged to speak."[3]

The theory explains the formation of social norms at both the micro and macro level. "As a micro-theory, the spiral of silence examines opinion expression, controlling for people's predispositions – such as fear of isolation, and also demographic variables that have been shown to influence people's willingness to publicly express opinions on issues, such as agricultural biotechnology."[1] The spiral of silence occurs on a macro level if more and more members of the perceived minority fall silent. This is when public perceptions of the opinion climate begin to shift.[1] "In other words, a person's individual reluctance to express his or her opinion, simply based on perceptions of what everyone else thinks, has important implications at the social level."[1] As one opinion gains the interest of the majority, the minority faces threat and fear of isolation from society. As the opinion gains momentum by the majority, the minority continues to be threatened and falls deeper into their silence. It continues until the minority no longer speaks out against it, and the opinion of the perceived majority ultimately becomes a social norm.[4]

Spiral model

The spiral model is an analogy used to visually describe the theory. The end of the spiral refers to the number of people who are not publicly expressing their opinions, due to the fear of isolation. An individual is more likely to go down the spiral if his or her opinion does not conform with the perceived majority opinion.[4] The following steps summarize how the process works:

  1. We can distinguish between fields where the opinions and attitudes involved are static, and fields where those opinions and attitudes are subject to changes... Where opinions are relatively definite and static – for example, "customs" – one has to express or act according to this opinion in public or run the risk of becoming isolated. In contrast, where opinions are in flux or disputed, the individual will try to find out which opinion he can express without becoming isolated.
  2. Individuals who, when observing their environments, notice that their own personal opinion is spreading and is taken over by others, will voice this opinion self-confidently in public. On the other hand, individuals who notice that their own opinions are losing ground will be inclined to adopt a more reserved attitude when expressing their opinions in public.
  3. It follows from this that, as the representatives of the first opinion talk quite a lot while the representatives of the second opinion remain silent, there is a definite influence on the environment: an opinion that is being reinforced in this way appears stronger than it really is, while an opinion suppressed as described will seem to be weaker than it is in reality.
  4. The result is a spiral process which prompts other individuals to perceive the changes in opinion and follow suit, until one opinion has become established as the prevailing attitude while the other opinion will be pushed back and rejected by everybody with the exception of the hardcore that nevertheless sticks to that opinion.[5]

This is a process of formation, change, and reinforcement of public opinion. 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 dominant one. Over time, these changing perceptions establish one opinion as predominant one and they change from the liquid state to a solid norm.[5]

Further, Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as a dynamic process, in which predictions about public opinion become fact as mass media's coverage of the majority opinion becomes the status quo, and the minority becomes less likely to speak out.[6]