Have you ever caught yourself deleting a Facebook status update even before you post it, because you anticipate the negative backlash it will receive from your online friends?

I know I have, and according to a study by Pew Research, you probably have, too.

Twitter and Facebook can be useful tools for distributing news and information, but when it comes to sharing controversial news, America can be reluctant to share things on social media if they know friends might disagree with it.

To study the effect social media has on debate and discourse of polarizing public issues, researchers surveyed 1,801 American adults about the Edward Snowden NSA privacy revelations in 2013, which exposed the government’s massive data collection through surveillance of American’s phone and email records.

Just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users were willing to post about the NSA surveillance program, compared to 86% of people who were willing to have a conversation in-person. The study also found that people were more willing to talk about the topic with people who agreed with them, both online and off. 

The study also found that social media users are more hesitant than others to share their dissenting views, online or off. 

The average Facebook user (someone who uses the site a few times per day) was half as likely as other people to say they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant. If they felt that their online Facebook network agreed with their views on this issue, their willingness to speak out in a face-to-face discussion with friends was higher.

According to Pew, a “spiral of silence,” a term that was introduced long before social media, can be applied to both online and offline opinions and debate. This means that generally one dominating viewpoint overtakes the conversation because those with minority viewpoints are less likely to speak up.

American politics are more divided than any time in recent history, and that could be the result of people continuing to surround themselves, and have discussions with, people who are sympathetic to their opinions. With social media, it is easier to self-censor and share updates you know will get a lot of Likes, rather than opinions that could spark a negative debate in the comments. 

The old adage, “Don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table,” apparently applies to social media, too.

Lead image by bryan