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Social media might stop us actually saying what we think

New research discovers that we're less likely to express ourselves online if we think that others will disagree with us

In news that will surprise probably no-one, American researchers have found that social media actually might be stunting our ability to say what we really think. According to the team from The Pew Research Internet Project, Twitter and Facebook have the ability to foster a "spiral of silence", which describes when an individual is reluctant to voice their opinion on the basis that it may contradict the views of their online peers. 

The researchers surveyed 1,801 people for their project, picking a global topic for discussion that transcended politics, privacy and patriotism: Edward Snowden's revelations that the NSA have eyes everywhere. They found that people were less likely to discuss the Snowden case on social media in person – 86% were prepared to have a face-to-face conversation about it, but only 42% were willing to discuss it on social media. But if an individual believed that people within their network were likely to agree with them, they'd be far more likely to post something.

I can think of reasons for this – committing something to the internet can leave it there forever, whereas saying something is, for all intents and purposes, ephemeral. People forget things you've said, unless they've been screengrabbed and shared. 

Interestingly, Facebook and Twitter users were also less likely to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings – even if they were far away from the gaze of their online mates, they were still less likely to express their views. The study states you don't even need to be a FB addict to experience this: "For instance, the average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant."

So, that idea that the internet is a beautiful, utopian free-for-all that encourages all kinds of views and opinions? Turns out it's not true. Online self-censorship is a big and very real thing – particularly because we're all worrying about what people in our networks think of us, so all we're left with is an endlessly recycled churn of identikit opinions.

Then again, maybe choosing Snowden as a conversation topic backfired – after all, if you genuinely believed that shadowy government organisations are monitoring everything you say on the internet, would you want to talk about it online?