For better or worse, social media has created an increasingly interconnected world, one in which the barrier between our “real” lives and online personas has all but disappeared. Given the Internet’s oft-lauded status as a place where ideas can be freely exchanged, one would assume that the near-seamless integration of virtual and real on social media would correlate to greater diversity of opinion and belief in our face-to-face relationships as well.
To the contrary, recent Pew Research Center findings reveal that regular users of social media are actually far less likely to share their opinions in-person with others, especially if they perceive those views to run counter to popular opinion (http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/).
To contextualize their research into this “spiral of silence,” Pew asked respondents whether or not broad-sweeping government surveillance of Americans’ email and phone Meta data, as revealed in 2013 by former NSA employee Edward Snowden, reflected a good or bad policy?
Beyond finding that Americans were divided in their opinions, Pew also discovered a deeply compelling trend: individuals who frequently used social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, were less likely to share their opinions on those platforms. Furthermore, those same respondents also reported as less likely to express their opinions in face-to-face discussions, including gatherings with family, friends and co-workers.
The conclusions of this study line up with previous research into human social behavior: “when people decide whether to speak out about an issue, they rely on reference groups — friendships and community ties — to weigh their opinion relative to their peers.”
Just as individuals today have much wider access to their peers’ social lives, they also have increased access to others’ opinions and beliefs. However, this may have the effect of reinforcing the perception that one’s views do not align with those of one’s social network. Individuals naturally self-censor when they feel their opinion is in the minority — if they have a strong sense that their friends, family and extended networks disagree with them, they may keep their thoughts to themselves out of fear of rejection.
In the context of public relations, these findings reveal a unique challenge. A general PR principal follows that, in order to generate the greatest impact, a story must try to appeal to the lowest common denominator of public interest. If social media exacerbates humans’ natural tendency to self-censor in order to maintain relationships, then viewpoints that run counter to the mainstream become increasingly foreign.
Similar to the findings generated by the political question on which the Pew study was based, topics of religion can be equally polarizing. During more than three decades regularly interfacing at the intersection of faith and culture, my Agency colleagues and I have found that the Christian worldview often collides with or is challenging for mainstream media to understand or embrace.
As followers of Jesus, it can be tempting to retreat to “safe harbor” silos and circles that validate our opinions and beliefs. However, to do so means our message becomes increasingly irrelevant. The “sweet spot” occurs in finding common ground where our minority views converge with those of the mainstream.
That doesn’t mean diluting the truth of the Gospel, but rather reframing the conversation around it in such a way that anyone — no matter what he or she believes — can find power and meaning in the context of their own life experience.
After all, Jesus Himself would always meet people where they were and where they were at, while challenging them to seek deeper meaning and understanding – beyond information, to transformation.