Spiral of Silence Theory

Elizabeth Noelle–Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory analyses and demonstrates how interpersonal communication and media operate together in the development of public opinion. Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann is a German political scientist. Through this Spiral of Silence theory Neumann indirectly explains the Jews status during World War II under Nazi’s control. Adolf Hitler dominated the whole society and the minority Jews became silent due to the fear of isolation or separation.

This theory states that in elections certain views seem to get more play than others. Sometimes people mute their opinions rather than talk about them. It occurs when individuals express when they perceive that their opinion is popular and those who think otherwise remain quiet. This process occurs in a spiral, so that one side of an issue ends up with much publicity and the other side with little. This expression/non-expression rests on two premises. The first is that people know which opinions are popular. The second is that people adjust their expression of opinion to these perceptions. Psychologists believe that this ‘Spiral of Silence’ is caused by fear of isolation as the ‘Spiral of Silence’ is not just a matter of wanting to be on winning side but is an attempt to avoid being isolated from one’s social group. Threats of criticism are also powerful forces in silencing individuals. This process affects public opinion but these are exceptions as there are groups and individuals who do not fear isolation and express their opinion irrespective of outcome.

Elizabeth Noelle–Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory

For example, in a company the managing director decides to increase their working hour from 8 to 10 and send e-mail to all employees. Majority of them accept this time changes and few employees are not satisfied with his decision. But they cannot or ready to express their thought publicly, because of the following reasons; they may feel unsupported by the other employees, “Fear of isolation” like transfer, “Fear of Rejection” By rejecting their personal opinion from the public will help to avoid fight or they may try to save their job by suppressing or avoid personal statement in public.

The best way to study public opinion in regards to the spiral of silence theory is to look at the theory in two different categories: mass media and interpersonal communication. Mass media can very easily make someone feel that their contradictions to a major issue are not welcomed and thus be afraid to speak out. The vast amount of mass media that an individual deals with every day feeds largely the same information on issues and politics. Noelle-Nuemann states that most media is consonant and that even though there are different sources of news through the mass media, most of the news is very similar and makes most people form the same opinion on an issue.

Although public opinion is formed by both personal observation and media utterings/exposure, individuals mix the two and confuse what is learned through the media with what is learned through the interpersonal channels. Neolle-Newmann has observed – “The longer one has studied the question, the clearer it becomes that fathoming the effects of the mass media is very hard. These effects do not come into being as a result of a single stimulus; they are as a rule cumulative, following the principle that water dripping constantly wears away stone. Further discussions among people spread the media’s messages further, and before long no difference can be perceived between the point of media perception and points far removed from it. The media’s effects are predominantly unconscious; people cannot provide an account of what has happened. Rather, they mix their own direct perceptions and the perceptions filtered through the eyes of the media into an indivisible whole that seems to derive from their own thoughts and experiences”.

Therefore ‘Spiral of Silence’ is a phenomenon which involves personal and media channels of communication. The media publicize public opinion, making evident which opinions predominate. Whether individuals express their opinions or not depending upon the predominant points of view, the media, in turn attend to the expressed opinion, and the spiral continues.

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