Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Spiral of Silence Theory (Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann)

In your own words, summarize how the “spiral of silence” works in human communication processes:

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (Neumann) defines public opinion as "opinions on controversial issues that one can express in public without isolating oneself." She established the Spiral of Science Theory to explain why people often shy away from revealing their opinions/preferences/views, when they feel they run counter to the majority opinion. Neumann believes that human beings have a natural tendency to constantly assess the present and future public mood and are able to make predictions about those moods with accuracy, most of the time. She likens the fear of isolation to the centrifugal force that accelerates the spiral of silence. She draws on Swarthmore psychologist, Solomon Asch, to support her claim. His research found that in group situations, most people tend to accede to the groups’ judgment when placed under pressure. On the possibility that the fear of isolation is a trait peculiar to Americans, Neumann rejects it. Her reason to do so comes from a study by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram (Milgram). Milgram conducted a study in Europe and found that just like most Americans, most Europeans too could not stand firm in the face of group pressure. Neumann also rejects the hypothesis that people conform more out of a desire to identify with a winner than to avoid isolation. She believes that people would rather be branded as a conformist or a hanger-on, rather than being considered a deviant on value-laden issues. According to her, only criminals or moral heroes will disregard what society thinks.

Neumann is convinced that the suppression of the minority’s opinions in the spiral of science is caused by media. Because of the influential nature of media (Agenda-setting theory), the media tends to set the agenda as to what the public’s opinion on an issue is, although it may not be correct. Hence, Neumann describes a condition called “pluralistic ignorance,” where people have a wrong idea of what the public’s opinion really is. She believes that the television in particular, is one media whose power of influence on public opinion, should not to be underestimated. In an attempt to describe the extent of the power of television, Neumann claims that she has never found a spiral of silence that went against the tenor of that media. In concurring with Stuart Hall’s pessimistic evaluation of the media’s intrusive role in democratic decision making, she suggests, that media in general and the television in particular, is the authority in giving people a sense of what the public opinion on an issue is. Hence, people can tell when they are not in the same opinion with the general public through information received from the media and so those people will tend not to voice out their opinions. Neumann claims that just because those people keep silent, it does not mean that they will change their opinions to suit the public. The German Public Opinion Research Center developed a “train/plane test” that determines whether people are willing to voice out their opinions. It found, very importantly, that those favoring the majority tend to willingly express their views, whereas those in the opposite court do not. Also, it found that the willingness to speak out depends on whether the future trend will be in harmony with their current views. As such, people feel safe to talk to those who share their same views than those who do not. The test also revealed that low self-esteem will cause one not to talk about his opinions and also, males, young adults and people from middle and upper classes find it easier to speak out. Lastly, the test identified that existing law encourages people to express their opinions when they feel they are in the minority.

Therefore, the spiral of silence can be summed up visually, as the prevailing public opinion being at the top most and widest part of a spiral, which then starts to narrow slightly to the willingness of people to speak out and narrowing even further to the people who perceive themselves as having a minority viewpoint. The spiral then keeps narrowing down further and further as those people perceived to be with minority viewpoint delve further and further into silence, right down to the end of the spiral with the fear of isolation.

Given the current discussions and broadcast of certain issues in connection with the upcoming Presidential elections, to what extent does the spiral of silence theory explain public opinion? Discuss two examples.

Example 1:

When Barack Obama’s (Obama) pastor of twenty years, Rev. Jeremiah Wright conducted radical sermons that caused much public outrage, Obama had no choice but to concur with the public. It can be said that Obama was caught in the spiral of silence where if he had supported his pastor’s comments in any way, he would have had a very hard time winning the elections. Obama can be said to be in the minority and at the bottom of the spiral while the public, with their opinions against the pastor, as being at the top of the spiral. Hence, Obama had to give a speech, where he had to declare in public that he was not in agreement with his pastor’s comments, failing which he may not have a chance of winning the elections.

Example 2:

In another example, it is a well known fact that gun control is a prevailing issue in the US. However, the politicians rarely touch on that topic during the elections, especially senator John McCain. Senator McCain has a strong support from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and speaking for gun control will only result in him losing a very critical support for the elections. On the other hand, while it seems as though the general public are divided by being for and against gun control, the other politicians too avoid bringing up the issue of gun control for fear of rejection by the public, just in case the future trend becomes such that most people’s opinions are opposite the politicians’. Hence, once again, the politicians are caught up in the spiral of silence where they have to succumb to present or future trend of public opinion to win the elections.

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