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The Spiral of Silence Theory: A Critical Analysis in the Communitarian Context

Olujimi Olusola Kayode Lagos State University School of Communication Lagos, Nigeria. [email protected] Tel. 23408033534894 and Sunday Adekunle Akinjogbin Lagos State University School of Communication Lagos, Nigeria. [email protected] Tel. 23408053500849


The Spiral of Silence: A Critical Analysis.

The theory of spiral of silence is a somewhat more controversial theory of media and public opinion which can be regarded as a form of agenda-setting but one that is focused on Macrolevel rather than micro-level consequences.

The most important of all the research works that preceded the emergence of the agenda-setting theory is that of Bernard Cohen in 1963, which examined the relationship between the press and foreign policy, and in which he made the observation that became the foundation of agendasetting research which is that the media are significantly more than disseminators of information and opinion. The media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but they are most successful in telling people what to think about. (Cohen, 1963)

Cohen created a blueprint for agenda setting research when he suggested that the world might look different to different people depending on the media they accessed since each media type may have provided people with a different map of the world.

Building on this, McCombs and Shaw (1977) posit a strong relationship between the topics emphasized in the media and the salience of these topics in minds of the audience. Their contribution to the formulation of the agenda setting theory owes a great deal to their development of the use of survey and content analysis combined to test the theory.

However, agenda setting research has been much extended since McCombs and Shaw with the development of corresponding theories of agenda building focusing on the relationship between the media and their sources (Lang & Lang, 1981; Gandy, 1982) and studies which explore intervening variables in the agenda setting process such as time, availability of media, and2

patterns of media use. It is this further extension of the agenda setting theories that Elizabeth Noelle-Neumanns theory (1974, 1984, 1991 as cited in Free Books Online, 2011) of spiral of silence emerged. In the words of its originator Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann: observations made in one context the mass media spread to another and encouraged people either to proclaim their views or to swallow them and keep quiet until , in a spiraling process, the one view dominated the public scene and the other disappeared from public awareness as its adherents became mute , this is the process that can be called a spiral of silence.

Like agenda setting, the spiral of silence seeks to account for shifts and changes in public opinion by re-conceptualizing the media effects traditions. Noelle-Neumann states that, according to the social-psychological mechanism here called the spiral of silence, the media have to be seen to be creating public opinion; they provide the environmental pressure to which people respond with alacrity or with acquiescence, or with silence.

The media are seen as major sources of reference for information about the distribution of opinion. They are more and more alike, saying the same things about the same things. A prevailing climate of opinion is created which encourages and structures a common perception and tends to discourage different and perhaps deviant interpretations or opinions. In a situation such as this, it is hypothesized that people tend only to express opinions that are seen to be prevailing, for fear of ridicule or isolation. Thus there appears to be increasing support for the dominant view, giving rise to a spiral of silence as more and more minority or deviant voices fall silent, and people yield to the majority view. Implicit in this is that people decide whether to remain silent on the basis of the distribution of opinions as reported in the media; they are3

sensitive to the levels of support for their own opinions Noelle-Neumann calls this the quasistatistical sense. ( Newbold, 2005)

Noelle-Neumann begins by proposing that individual have a strong need to connect to a social collective and that cohesiveness within that collective must be constantly ensured. She bases some of this reasoning on the experiments done in social psychology which demonstrates that individuals will not express opinions and behavior in ways that they know are wrong in order to avoid social censure (disapproval) and criticism and to remain part of the crowd. She notes that this force is one driven by fear of ostracism (exclusion) and fear of isolation, not by desire to be part of the winning team or on the bandwagon. (Littlejohn, 2002) She develops several ideas relevant to an individuals assessment of public opinion. First she proposed that individuals have a natural ability to judge the climate of public opinion. She calls this the quasi-statistical sense and finds evidence for this ability in both the willingness of individuals to make prediction about public opinions and the uncanny accuracy of many of those predictions. However she acknowledges that assessments of opinions are not always accurate. She blames much of this pluralistic ignorance on the mass media.

She argues that media presentations influence individual assessments of public opinions because the media are ubiquitous and continuous (i.e. they are everywhere in terms of both time and space and cannot be avoided by the individual), and positions presented by media are consonant (i.e. various media sources present essentially the same image of a given topic). She identifies six parts of a working journalist everyday living as factors that produce media consonance:


1. The concurring assumptions and experiences held by all journalists at all levels and in all fields about the publics criteria for acceptance of their work in terms of both style and content. 2. Journalist common tendency to confirm their own opinions, to demonstrate that theirs is the proper interpretation, and to confirm that predictions have indeed been correct. 3. Their dependence on common sources, such as the relatively few wire and news video services. 4. Their reciprocal influence in building up frames of reference; newspaper people watch whats on the television news, television news programs monitor on one another, and broadcast news people search the newspapers for consensus and information. 5. Their striving for acceptance from colleagues and superiors. 6. Journalists relative uniformity of views as a result of demographic, professional and attitudinal attributes shared by them.

This view of media effects suggests that two different social processes, one macro-level and one micro-level, are operating simultaneously to produce effects.

At the macro-level, audience members, because of their desire to be accepted may choose to remain silent when confronted with what they perceive to be prevailing counter opinion.

At the micro-level, journalists, because of the dynamics of their newsgathering function and their need to be accepted, present a restricted selection of news, further forcing into silence those in the audience who wish to avoid isolation. These media images also influence an individuals sense of prevailing public opinion and sometimes lead to an inaccurate reading of the public climate.5

Combining these two factors, fear of isolation and the assessment of public opinion, results in the key idea of spiral of silence theory, which assumes that because individuals fear isolation, when they believe prevailing opinion is opposed to their opinion or is moving in a direction away from their opinion, those individuals will not be willing to speak out. (Free Books Online, 2011)

Noelle-Neumann also argues for the dominating effect of mass media upon the public. Elihu Katz et al (2002) has made the following statement regarding the relationship between spiral of silence theory and the media: Central to Noelle-Neumann's thesis is the notion that the media have come to substitute for reference groups. It is strongly implicit in the Noelle-Neumann papers that people decide whether or not to be silent on the basis of the distribution of opinion reported (often incorrectly) by the media.

The spiral of silence states that, in the formation of climates of opinion in the public sphere, there is the interplay of four elements: mass media, interpersonal communication and social relations, individual expressions of opinion, and the perceptions which individuals have of the surrounding climates of opinion in their own social environment.

The main assumptions of the theory are as follows:

1. Society threatens deviant individuals with isolation. 2. Individuals experience fear of isolation continuously. 3. This fear isolation causes individuals ton try to assess the climate of opinion at all times 4. The results of this estimate affect their behavior in public, especially their willingness or not to express opinions openly


In brief, the theory proposes that in order to avoid isolation on important public issues support, many people are guided by what they think to be the dominant or declining opinions in their environment. People tend to conceal their views if they feel they are in a minority and are more willing to express them if they think they are dominant. The result is that those views which are perceived to be dominant gain even more ground and alternatives retreat still further. This is the spiraling effect referred to. (McQuail, 2010)

Extensions of spiral of silence theory

Extensions of spiral of silence theory have been developed in two major areas.

First, some scholars have developed theoretical predictions regarding the group that people consider when assessing prevailing opinion. Specifically it has been suggested that individuals do not look so much to overall societal opinions as to the opinions as to the opinions of relevant reference groups. Researchers have found out that perceived reference group opinions had a larger effect on opinion expression than perceived societal opinions. In contrast to this some scholars have found out that individuals were more comfortable expressing dissenting opinions within a valued reference group.

Second area of development from the theory has involved further explication of the characteristics of those who are silenced and those who still speak out- in the face of contrary public and reference group opinion.

Neumann had originally posited that the spiral of silence effect would not be as strong for highly educated and affluent portions of the population and that a hard core of individuals would always be willing to speak. However, researchers have identified many other additional variables which7

affect the willingness to speak out in the face of contrary public sentiment. These include strength and certainty of opinion, political interest and extremity, the obtrusiveness of the issue and an individuals level of self-efficacy.

Summary of spiral of silence according to Elihu Katz et al (1983 and 2002)

1. Individuals have opinions. 2. Fearing isolation, individuals will not express their opinions if they perceive themselves unsupported by others. 3. A quasi-statistical sense is employed by individuals to scan the environment for signs of support. 4. Mass media constitute the major source of reference for information about the distribution of opinion and thus the climate of support/nonsupport. 5. So do other reference groups 6. The media tend to speak in one voice, almost monopolistically. 7. The media tend to distort the distribution of opinion in society, biased as they are by the views of journalists. 8. Perceiving themselves unsupported, groups of individuals-who may, at times, even constitute a majority-will lose confidence and withdraw from public debate, thus speeding the demise of their position through the self-fulfilling spiral of silence. They may not change their own minds, but they stop recruitment of others and abandon the fight. 9. Society is manipulated and impoverished thereby.


In the spiral of silence, as evident from the discussion so far, the motivating variable is fear of isolation or ridicule although for agenda setting it is need for orientation that motivates, with people striving to locate and orientate themselves within society. As McCombs and Weaver (1985) state, people may simply be curious about what is going on around them in society; fear of isolation is not always the motivating drive behind information seeking or usage.

Several observations should be evident upon consideration of the spiral of silence theory:

1. The theory takes for granted that the media are seen as reporters of public opinion. 2. The social psychological themes in the theory are culturally and historically specific, in this case, to Nazi Germany and implicitly Western European. 3. The individualistic views of the audience, do not deal with the influence of group memberships most often found in communalistic cultures. 4. Social settings of media consumption are not effectively examined or addressed, for instance, the role of the family or the ethnic group in political and opinion socialization is ignored. 5. The theory is not sensitive to the complexity of media content, especially in the context of how people make meanings of such content either in support or even in deviance or in opposition. 6. Following from the last point, the media may actually lead to discontent rather than consensus because social and political agendas cannot be left to the dimension of information or opinion only, but also has to do with sentiments and emotions.


7. The theory fail to explain situations of rapid political change, such as being seen in the middle east and the Arab world today, where in spite of state controlled media which may have been setting the agendas for the people and influencing dominant or prevailing public opinion, these revolutions still occur.

Critique of the Spiral of Silence Theory Spiral of silence theory is not based on the paradigm of unlimited media effects. At least three mediating factors limit the theoretical assumptions. First, an unpopular view probably always will have a number of hardcore supporters willing to express the view despite social sanction. These are called the loud minority as against the silent majority. This may occur because the minority views supporters relish deviance or at least depend on it to demarcate their proposed reforms; or because the advocates of the minority view hold secure and influential social positions; or because they have decided to bide their time until the majoritys exponents become so accustomed to dominance that they are unable to defend their view effectively (Noelle-...

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