The spiral of silence

How fear of social isolation is fueling populism and identity politics.

The spiral of silence is a powerful media theory.

The fear of guilt-by-association is so powerful that individuals would consider supporting a cause they strongly disagree with — from fear of social isolation.

However, this can also be a breeding ground for populism in times when society are deeply polarised.

So, what’s really going on here?

The spiral of silence for fear of isolation

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why fear of isolation as a result of peer-exclusion might prompt contrarian thinkers to silence their true opinions.

As the dominant coalition gets to to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the the opinion corridor).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974)
The downward spiral of silence.

The spiral of silence can lead to unwanted effects, in this case — populism:

Group A is opposed to populism and against allowing populists participate in democratic contexts (extreme position).

Group B is opposed to populism and against allowing authorities to impose limits to free speech (non-extreme position).

First, vocal leaders of both groups enter into debate.

Group B leaders accuses Group A for imposing limits on free speech as this might lead to fascism, but this can’t stick since Group A holds anti-populist positions across the board.

Group A leaders accuses Group A not for wanting to safeguard free speech, but for being populist supporters. This congruence creates a false dichotomy which sticks.

Group B see their vocal leaders being publicly outed as populists, a label that Group B fears and so they enter a state of cognitive dissonance (1957) and by silencing moral conviction to avoid becoming social outcasts.

As this behaviour spirals, Group A eventually start to fraction into two vocal groups, one inside the spiral of silence (relative extreme position) and one outside (relative non-extreme position).

The result: The margin for “error” diminishes while the group of “silenced” people steadily grows.

The major issue here is that Group A has a tendency to assume moral superiority (by adopting a stronger position) which allows them to resort to pro hominem arguments (also known as honor by association and the logical inverse of ad hominem arguments).

Deep into the spiral of silence, the remaining vocal group might be widely unsupported — and might also be completely unaware of this weakness due to their unchecked superiority complex.

Also, they might be wielding a disproportionate influence of minorities.

At this point, the playing field is opening up for a vocal leader who’s ready to claim that populist position that, ironically, a majority opposed from the start. Resorting to previously successful arguments of moral superiority simply doesn’t have any effect on a populist leader.

And, as the vocal minority finally asks for broad support to combat the emerging populists, there simply aren’t enough people left to heed their call.

Suffice to say — the spiral of silence is to be considered real — and extremely dangerous.

Photo by Jessica F on Unsplash.


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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