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Will the spiral of silence spin on social networking sites? An experiment on opinion climate, fear of isolation and outspokenness.


The spiral of silence theory proposed by Noelle-Neumann (1973) is regarded as one of the most significant theories in the field of public opinion. According to Noelle-Neumann, individuals' willingness to overtly express is closely associated with their perception of opinion climate. By comparing their own opinions with perceived current public opinion and future opinion trends, people make decision on whether speak out or not. One main notion of this theory is that individuals who hold unpopular opinions will be isolated by the popular opinion holders, resulting from which they tend to be reluctant to speak out (Moy, David, & Keith, 2001). Since the theory of spiral of silence was first proposed in the 1970s, a great number of studies have been conducted to examine the factors that influence individuals' willingness to speak out in the offline communication settings (Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990; Shamir, 1997; Willnat, Lee, Detenber, 2002). With the development of information and communication technology (ICT), a sizable number of studies have tried to examine its applicability in the context of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The results have demonstrated that the process of spiral silence could be changed due to the characteristics of online communication, as individuals tend to be more autonomous than in offline communication (e.g., Liu & Fahmy, 2011). Individuals become more likely to express their opinions in online communication when they find that they cannot be identified (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002; Hertel, Niemeyer, & Clauss, 2008).

Recently, social network sites (SNS) are becoming a crucial part of individuals' social life. However, SNS differentiates from other online communication platforms in a number of ways, such as chatting room and online forum. The anonymous environment of CMC could be moderated on SNS for they are bounded systems within which individual display his/her profile public or semi-public, share connections with other users in his/her articulated list of "friends", and view others' list of connections (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Besides, SNS have a higher level of social presence or media richness compared with other CMC tools, such as E-mail, IM and chatroom, for it integrates numbers of those tools (Brandtzaeg, Staksrud, Hagen & Wold, 2009). By implication, the social dynamics on SNS would be distinctive from both FTF and CMC. Hence, the spiral of silence process on SNS is expected to perform differently. Moreover, most previous studies, which have examined spiral of silence in online contextual environment, were conducted in a general CMC setting, while few studies have been done to explore individuals' willingness to speak out on SNS. Furthermore, scarce of studies have been done in the context of China. Therefore, this study would conduct an experiment to test this theory on SNS, with respect to the issue of legalization of prostitution in China, which is a controversial topic.

Theoretically, this study is among the first to examine the spiral of silence theory in the China's SNS context. By investigating the influential factors (i.e., fear of isolation and climate of opinion) of individuals' outspokenness in SNS, this study can find out whether the spiral of silence exist in a new context of SNS. Practically, our findings could be used to understand the dynamics of public discussion on SNS and help authorities better promote public discussion and civic engagement regarding the public issues.

The Context of Study

Prostitution practices vary greatly from country to country. Prostitution is legal in some countries, such as Australia and Singapore; however, prostitution is considered as a serious crime in other countries, such as China and Thailand. Supporters for the legalization of prostitution generally believe that it is a harmless act and should not be considered as a crime. Prostitution is a sex act nothing about immoral but freedom and there is no harm in charging for it. Meanwhile, if the prostitution practice could be legalized well, it would encourage cleaner working conditions for those sex providers and purchasers. For those proponents, however, prostitution is an absolutely immoral practice and should be considered as a crime. Moreover, some objectors even define prostitution as a type of rape, since it turns a woman into an object for a man's use, and practice is demeaning to women. Due to its controversy, this study employs the issue of prostitution legalization as the research context to examine people's willingness to speak out.

Literature Review

Spiral of silence & SNS

Neumann (1973) postulates that individuals would scrutinize the public environment to make evaluation about the climate of opinion due to their fear of isolation, and the perceived minority tend not to speak out. The online anonymous identities change the process of spiral of silence, for individuals would be liberated from communication apprehension when they find that they cannot be identified (Bargh et al., 2002; Hertel et al., 2008). The assumption of social control in the theory of spiral of silence, which indicated that expectation of others would discourage individuals to speak out, would be falsified in the virtual community, for individuals would get rid of pressures given by others, resulting from which individuals can express true selves "against a duplicitous world in which you have to conform to the expectation of others" (Coyne, 1999, pp.4). Besides, LaRose and Eastin (2004) proposed that the willingness to speak out can be reinforced when individuals succeed in expressing opinion without suffering negative responses in online context. Empirical studies on spiral of silence in CMC setting have demonstrated that online context would increase individuals' willingness to speak out (Liu & Fahmy, 2011; Schulz & Roessler, 2012).

With regards to SNS, users presenting themselves, making social network connection, and maintaining relationship with others (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Kane, Fichman, Gallaugher, Glaser, 2009), the contextual factors on SNS are distinctive from the ones in a general CMC setting, for it revolutionizes the way individuals share information about themselves and others within a system. On one hand, SNS are cue-richer compared to the general CMC setting, for they not only provide text-based cues, but also audiovisual ones; on the other hand, SNS are commonly used for one-to-many communication instead of one-to-one communication (Antheunis, Valkenburg, & Peter, 2010).

Furthermore, the theory of spiral of silence proposed an assumption that the majority would impose social sanctions to those who express unpopular opinions (Oshagan, 1996), however, this process would be moderated in CMC setting, for it precludes numbers of social cues through which the normative influence individuals' willingness to speak out and social context convey formality (Burgoon, Buller, & Woodall, 1989; Kiesler, Siegel, & Mcquire, 1984; McDevitt, Kiousis, & Wahl-Jorgesen, 2003). As SNS are cue-richer, individuals' fear of isolation and potential social sanction would vary between SNS and CMC.

In addition, SNS allows users to set disclosure rules, such as they could set friend groupings, block lists and use other tools to manage privacy. Level of anonymity in SNS is low compared to the general CMC setting (Brandtzaeg, Staksrud, Hagen, & Wold, 2009). Accordingly, there are still "others" in SNS, which could put forth pressures to individual when they express opinion in public. Besides, the theory of conformity maintained that when one's action is visible or under surveillance by other members of a group (e.g. followers on Twitter), one is more likely to match attitude, belief and behaviors to group norms (Brandtzaeg et al., 2010; Cialdini, & Goldstein, 2004).

Overall, differentiating from the general CMC setting, users might perform distinctively in SNS when they make decisions on whether speak true selves out or not, for SNS offer individuals a revolutionized way of communication, which imitates FTF communication to certain extent, such as developing relationship with strangers, reinforcing offline friendship and presenting oneself in the face of others. Therefore, exploring individuals' willingness to speak out in SNS would complement the research on spiral of silence in online context.

Fear of isolation

Noelle-Neumann (1984) added the fear of isolation concept as one major motive to explain why people imitate others in the book of The Spiral Silence. She posited that fear of separation or isolation is caused by our 'social nature' because every social beings wants to be popular and respected. When an individual's opinion is perceived to be in the majority, this person may express opinion freely and openly without fear of isolation. Conversely, if individual's standpoint is rated in the minority, he or she may keep silent in order to avoiding confrontation or embarrassment (Shoemaker, Breen & Stamper, 2000). Extant research has indicated that fear of isolation is negatively correlated with the possibility to express opinion in face to face communication (Glynn & Park, 1997; Kim, Han, Shanahan & Berdayes, 2004).

However, Short, Williams & Christie (1976) found out that anonymity could liberate individuals from negative social sanctions because of less social presence and seldom contacts in computer-mediated forums. As SNS are different from the general CMC setting, which shows lower level of anonymity (Brandtzaeg, et al., 2009), opinion expression of users may vary distinctively compare to CMC setting, especially on some controversial issues. Therefore, in this study, fear of isolation is studied as a naturally-occurring (quasi) variable to examine its influence on willingness to speak out in SNS.

Climate of opinion

Climate of opinion belongs to the central concepts of spiral of silence theory, and Noelle- Neumann (1973) believed that climate of opinion has a significant role in people's choice of outspokenness. Specifically, before deciding to or not to overtly express their opinion toward certain topics, people will firstly examine the position that they stands on by perceiving the climate of opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1973). In the FTF setting, numerous researches have been conducted to study the influence of people's perception of opinion climates on outspokenness. Scholars found that perception of current opinion distribution and future opinion trend respectively exert effects on willingness to speak out (Glynn et al., 1997; Shamir, 1995; Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990).

To date, along with extensive application of internet and computer, many scholars have devoted to test the effect of opinion climates perception on outspokenness in CMC scenario. For instance, Liu and Fahmy (2009) found that the effect of perception of current opinion climate and future opinion trend on willingness to overtly express has no significant change in CMC environment compared within the FTF scenario. There are also studies that demonstrate in CMC environment, both the perceptions of majority and minority opinions become more moderate and people are more likely to express than in the FTF setting (McDevitt et al., 2003; Hardy & Scheufele, 2005). Besides, many researches find that climate of opinion plays a similar part on willingness to speak out on SNS with that on offline scenario. A study conducted in testing spiral of silence theory in Facebook showed that individuals who perceive they are majority opinion holders in a dominant climate opinion are more likely to overtly express than those minority-opinion holders (Chen, 2011).

Based on the above literature review, we posit the following hypotheses:

H1: Participants with high level of fear of isolation are less willing to speak out than participants with low level of fear of isolation on SNS platform.

H2: Participants whose opinions are contrary to the dominant opinion climate are less willing to speak out than those participants in a non-dominant opinion climate on SNS platform.

Besides, as Neumann (1973) indicated in the spiral of silence theory, individuals would be reluctant to speak out when they evaluate themselves as unpopular opinion holders because of their fear of being isolated by those who hold the dominant opinion, therefore, a research question is proposed as follows:

RQ: Is there interaction effects between opinion climate and fear of isolation on outspokenness?



40 mainland Chinese college students, 20 male and 20 female, aged between 20 to 25 years, and who actively used Renren ( in the past three months, participated in this study. RenRen is a popular social networking site among Chinese students adopting real name system and is the equivalent of Facebook, a popular U.S. based social networking site, in China. Convenient sampling took place on RenRen website until we hit the required number of eligible participants.

Experimental Design and Procedure

A two-factor between-subjects experimental design with opinion climate condition (dominant vs. non-dominant) as the manipulated variable, and fear of isolation (low and high) as the naturally-occurring (quasi) variable was adopted. The dependent variable was outspokenness.

An email was sent to all eligible individuals via RenRen to inform them about the experiment, and to invite their participation. Willing individuals were requested to send a response email stating if they agree or disagree with the legalization of prostitution in Mainland China. Among all the reply, we choose 40 participants who were not in favour of the legalization of prostitution. These participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions: either the dominant or the non-dominant opinion climate condition, such that there were 20 participants in each condition. After assignment to condition, all participants were requested, via a second email, to visit an experiment website via a unique uniform resource locator.

On the experiment website, all participants first answered the same set of questions on age group, gender and preexisting view on the issue of the legalization of prostitution in China. After exposure to the test stimulus, all participants were directed to a subsequent page on the experiment site where they were requested to fill up a questionnaire that assessed fear of isolation and opinion expression.

Separately, to check our manipulation, each screenshot was assessed by 10 third-party individuals, who were requested to indicate if they agree or disagree that there was a clear overall opinion generated in each blog. Both stimuli were found to accurately portray the opinion climate that they were intended to portray. Besides, all participants were thanked and debriefed via email at the end of the experiment.


We designed two blogs on RenRen websites for this study with two kinds of climates of opinions. A screenshot of a blog, in which nine out of the ten available comments were contrary to the participants' own view on the issue, was used in the dominant climate condition. As this study recruited participants who were opposed to the legalization of prostitution, the dominant climate condition was designed to be the one in which nine out of ten comments were in favour of the legalization (Figure 1). Meanwhile, a screenshot of a blog, in which five comments were supporting and five comments were against the legalization of prostitution (Figure 2) was used in the non-dominant climate condition. Notably, in order to keep participants' identities confidential, we have removed all potential identifiable information in the Figures. [See Figure 1 & 2]


Fear of isolation. The fear of isolation was operationalized as the positive and negative emotions regarding a conversation. A 6-item composite measure, adapted from a previous study by Scheufele et al. (2001), was utilized to measure fear of isolation. On a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), participants rated their level of agreement with the following statements: (a) "I worry about being isolated if people disagree with me," (b) "I avoid telling other people what I think when there's a risk they'll avoid me if they knew my opinion," (c) "I do not enjoy getting into arguments," (d) "Arguing over controversial issues improves my intelligence," (e) "I enjoy a good argument over a controversial issue," and (f) "I try to avoid getting into arguments." Among them, items (d) and (e) utilized reverse-coding for analysis. A composite index was created from the mean score of all six items, with higher scores indicating greater fear of isolation (M = 4.70, SD = .88, Cronbach's [alpha] = .76). Items (d) and (e) were subsequently removed to improve the reliability of this composite measure (M = 5.01, SD = 1.14, Cronbach's [alpha] = .86). In order to use fear of isolation as a between-subjects variable, a median split (Med = 5.00) was performed such that scores on the first 50th percentile were recoded as "1" and labeled as "low fear", and the remaining scores recoded as "2" and labeled as "high fear".

Willingness to speak out. Individuals' outspokenness was operationalized as whether individuals are willing to express unpopular opinion. Adapting from a previous study by Neuwirth and other researchers (2007), which investigated the relationship between fear of isolation and opinion expression, participants were asked to consider the likelihood they would pursue five different opinion expression strategies on a 7-point scale varying from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) with the following statements: (a) "I will say I agree with the legalization of prostitution in China on this Remen platform.", (b) "I will give neutral comments without revealing what I really think on this Remen platform", (c) "I will discuss with these people my opinions about the legalization in China.", (d) "I will give my own view about the legalization of prostitution in China on this Remen platform.", and (e) "I would say nothing about the legalization of prostitution in China on this Remen platform". Items (b) and (d) were reverse-coded for analysis. The mean of the five items were computed to create a composite index, with higher scores indicating greater outspokenness (M = 3.40, SD = .88, Cronbach's a = .54). Items (a) and (b) were subsequently removed to improve the reliability of this composite measure (M = 3.56, SD = 1.25, Cronbach's [alpha] = .85).


Preliminary Analyses

A total N = 40 was considered for analysis. There were 10 male and 10 female participants in each opinion climate condition. No univariate outlier was found. Assumptions regarding the form of the model, independence of error, and normality were met. Although the homogeneity of variance assumption between the two experimental conditions were not met, Leven's F (3, 36) = 3.10, p = .04 (<.05), these results were deemed acceptable for analyses of variance to proceed because the variance ratio between the largest cell variance and the smallest cell variance is smaller than four (Tabachnik & Fiddell, 2013).

Main and Interaction Effects

With an alpha level of .05, a two-way between-subjects ANOVA was conducted with opinion climate condition (dominant vs. non-dominant) as the experimentally manipulated independent variable, and fear of isolation (low vs. high) as the naturally-occurring (quasi) independent variable. The score on outspokenness was analyzed as the dependent variable.

There was a statistically significant main effect of opinion climate condition on outspokenness, F (1, 36) = 6.70, Mean Square Error (MSE) = 1.40, p = .01 (< .05), partial [[eta].sup.2] = .16. Participants in the non-dominant opinion climate condition (M = 4.02, SD = 1.37, n = 20) reported greater outspokenness than participants in the dominant opinion climate condition (M = 3.10, SD = .96, n = 20). The main effect of fear of isolation on outspokenness was statistically non-significant, F (1, 36) = .023, MSE = 1.40, p > .05. The opinion climate by fear of isolation interaction effect was also found to be statistically non-significant on outspokenness, F (1, 36) = 1.98, MSE = 1.40, p > .05.


This study was designed to examine whether the spiral of silence exist on SNS or not, for SNS use is becoming prevalent in individuals' social life. Overall, according to our results, climate of opinion plays a crucial role in the process of individuals' opinion expression on SNS, while the fear of isolation is found to be a non-significant factor influencing outspokenness, and no interaction effects between climate of opinion and fear of isolation has been found.

In terms of climate of opinion on SNS, individuals in a dominant climate of opinion, which is different from their own, are less likely to speak out their true thinking, while those in a non-dominant climate tend to express their own opinions. Congruent with Neumann's spiral of silence theory (1973), this study provides consolidate support that individuals are reluctant to speak out when they evaluate they are the minority opinion holders in the climate of opinion on SNS platform. However, this finding in present paper is inconsistent with a number of previous studies that have been conducted to test the theory of spiral of silence in the general CMC settings, such as online forum or chat room, which indicated that the effects of climate of opinion on individuals' willingness to speak out could be moderated (McDevitt et al., 2003; Hardy & Scheufele, 2005).

This interesting finding of the effects of climate of opinion on individuals' outspokenness on SNS might be explained as the unique characteristics of SNS. Individuals could be identified on SNS platform as the users create identification profiles and make them public or semi-public, thus, SNS users are not anonymous, which is different from the feature of anonymity in the general CMC settings. A huge number of previous research has documented that computer-mediated interaction, which have higher social equalization and anonymous, could lead to higher level of participation (Gallupe, Bastianutti, & Cooper, 1991; Kiesler et al., 1984). However, users on SNS platform are not anonymous, distinctive with the general CMC setting. Hence, SNS could not reduce status consciousness and inequality, on account of which, individuals' opinion expression on SNS could influence others' impression towards them.

With regard to fear of isolation, it is found to be non-significant associated with individuals' willingness to speak out in the context of SNS. Besides, this study also found no significant interaction effect between climate of opinion and individuals' fear of isolation. The finding is inconsistent with previous empirical studies (Glynn & Park, 1997; Kim et al., 2004). According to those studies, individuals' fear of isolation is negatively correlated with their willingness to expression opinion in FTF setting, while this effects could be moderated in the general CMC setting. One plausible explanation for the inconsistency could be that the study is only designed to expose the participants to the stimulus and then ask them to conduct a survey questionnaire to measure their willingness to speak out, but not to ask them to post comments on the SNS platform. Hence, the participants in this research may not have a feeling of the natural setting, due to which, the effects of fear of isolation may be influenced by this methodological issue.

Besides, there are several limitations in this pilot experiment study. Firstly, this study employs the technique of hypothetical scenario to induce the participants to believe they are located in the circumstances of online discussion, which could threaten the external reliability as they are not in a natural setting. Future studies should be conducted in a natural setting to overcome this methodological issue. Second, a quato sampling of 40 participants in total imperil the representativeness and generalizability of this study. In addition, a post-test of manipulation check employing a new group of participants in this study could impair the internal reliability as the participants' perception of the two treatment conditions in this experiment may different from those in the new group.

Despite of these limitations, this study has several theoretical, methodological and practical enlightenments. With regard to theoretical implication, the findings in this study have contributed to the theory of spiral silence as it is conducted in SNS context, which is different from both FTF and CMC setting. Lacking in social cues, such as facial expression, behavioural violence, and other body languages, interactions on SNS platform is different from in FTF setting. Moreover, lacking in anonymity, discussions on SNS could not reduce the influence of social status as in CMC setting. Therefore, this study has filled a research gap in testing of spiral of silence theory.

A number of past empirical studies on the spiral of silence have applied similar techniques, either by asking participants to imagine a situation in which they are minority opinion holders, or by inducing them to believe that a real discussion is taking place (Baldassare & Katz, 1996; Hayes, Glynn, & Shanahan, 2005; Huang, 2005; Moy, Domke, & Stamm, 2001). However, this study has taken actions to manage this methodological problem embedded in the use of hypothetical scenarios in experiments through exposing the participants to two pictures of webpages of SNS platforms, including dominant and non-dominant climate of opinion respectively.

In the case of practical contributions, differing from previous studies testing the theory of spiral of silence in CMC setting, this study is conducted on a popular SNS platform where the users are not anonymous as they are in the general CMC setting. Anonymity is found to be one of the main factors in testing theory of spiral of silence in CMC setting, which could moderate the effects of climate of opinion and fear of isolation (Morris & Ogan, 1996; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986). However, along with development of SNS, more and more forums are now requiring users to fill in their real names, result from which there would be less anonymous on SNS platform. Although the research findings from this study indicate that the main effect of fear of isolation on outspokenness is non-significant within a non-anonymous CMC environment, future research should pay more attentions to these unique characteristics on the process of individuals' opinion expression.

Furthermore, the climate of opinion is found to have significant effects on individuals' willingness of opinion expression in this study. Since individuals holding unpopular opinions towards a disputed topic in the dominate climate of reverse opinion are prone to keep silence, it could jeopardize the process of democratic discussions. Furthermore, as SNS use has becoming more and more important in individuals' social life, political participation, and civic engagement, more actions should be done to encourage the expressions of minority opinion holders in order to create health and democratic conversations on those platforms.

Correspondence to:

Yang Xiaodong

Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 31 Nanyang Link, WKWSCI Building, Rm 05-01 Singapore 637718

TEL: 65-94673167


Li Li

Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 31 Nanyang Link, SCI building, Rm 05-11 Singapore 637718

TEL: 65-67906971



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Yang Xiaodong, Li Li

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
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Date:Jan 1, 2016
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