We act differently when we know we’re being watched, and that includes adapting our online behavior because we know that the government is tracking our every move. If you’ve ever changed what you were about to write in a forum post, or censored a tweet because you thought it might get picked up by the NSA, you already know that this is true.
Self-censorship is particularly dangerous, because it can silence minority opinions, says a new research paper by Wayne State University journalism professor Elizabeth Stoycheff. It can lead, she says, to a “spiral of silence,” wherein “individuals, motivated by fear of isolation, continuously monitor their environments to assess whether their beliefs align with or contradict majority opinion.”
The Internet allows more views and beliefs to be heard than ever before on Facebook and other social sites. Often, these large, diverse online networks offer a more accurate picture of majority opinion than our close-knit but less diverse real-life relationships, which seems to be a good thing. The problem is that this majority “opinion climate” can dominate, suppressing minority views.