Studies have long shown that people tend to keep their opinions to themselves when they believe the majority of those around them don't share their views.
There's even a name for this phenomenon. It's called the "spiral of silence."
The theory was first proposed by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974, but it's a human trait that has probably existed since we were clubbing each other back in the Stone Age.
Then along came the Internet and the explosion of social media networks, and suddenly people had places where they could share their views without fear of being physically attacked.
It was widely believed that websites such as Facebook and Twitter would spawn a new age of political discourse by giving people the courage to freely express their opinions on issues even when their views were not shared by the majority.
Well, guess what? A new study, just published today by Pew Research Center, says it didn’t happen.
It turns out people are actually less likely to share their opinions on social media than they are in face-to-face settings such as family dinners and water-cooler conversations with colleagues.
And if people think their social media friends and followers disagree with their view, they are less likely to discuss the issue at all — not in cyberspace or in the physical presence of other humans. (Unless your name is Richard Dawkins, of course.)
The report entitled "Social Media and the 'Spiral of Silence'" examined the willingness of 1,801 Americans to share their opinions on and offline about a divisive news story and political issue that broke in 2013 and remains a huge deal: former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread US government surveillance of phone and email records.
How did people handle Snowden and the NSA on social media? Here's a snapshot of Pew's findings.
86 percent of respondents said they were willing to discuss Snowden’s explosive revelations in person, while only 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post their opinion about the same issue.
Of the 14 percent who were reluctant to discuss the NSA surveillance program in face-to-face conversations, almost none were willing to post their views on social media either.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
That pours a big bucket of icy cold water on the notion that the emergence of social media networks would encourage people to share views they would not otherwise express.
While the researchers didn't explore the reasons why the respondents self-censored, previous studies on the spiral of silence have found people don't speak out for fear of isolation and ostracism. There's also a fear that a prospective employer might find the posts and not like what they read.
Even allowing for age differences, Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to express their opinions in many face-to-face settings, particularly if they believed their social media friends and followers didn't share their view.
The researchers are not entirely sure why that's the case, but one possible reason could be related to social media users' greater awareness of the opinions of others in their network; i.e. they know lots of people don't agree with them so why go and provoke an argument at dinner.
They may also have "witnessed those with minority opinions experiencing ostracism, ridicule or bullying online, and that this might increase the perceived risk of opinion sharing in other settings," they said.
People were more willing to share their opinions about the Snowden leaks on and offline if they believed their audience agreed with them.
In other words, we don't like to cause confrontation. That was particularly the case at work, where people were nearly three times more likely to enter into a conversation about the NSA surveillance program if they believed their colleagues agreed with them. On Facebook, people were twice as likely to discuss the issue if they felt their network of friends and followers shared the same opinion.
But not everyone with an unpopular opinion about Snowden's revelations or the government's surveillance program self-censors.
Those who felt they knew a lot about the topic, had very strong opinions and/or a high-level of interest were more likely to discuss the subject, whether it was on social media or in person.