The internet is supposed to be a bastion of self-expression, where you're free to speak your mind knowing that someone, somewhere shares your feelings. However, Pew Research and Rutgers University have published a study showing that many social network users feel compelled to keep their mouths shut on sensitive topics. While the majority of those studied say they'd be willing to discuss a political issue like US government surveillance at dinner or at work, they're very shy about doing the same on Facebook or Twitter. Effectively, the internet is mirroring the real world -- people face a "spiral of silence" where they're afraid to share opinions that differ from those of their friends. That's borne out by additional findings that people suspect they have more disagreements with their online buddies than their personal acquaintances.
The study wasn't large (1,801 adults) and only tackled one issue, so it's not going to be a perfect microcosm of society. All the same, it might reveal a problem with the way social networks are structured. Because services like Facebook and Twitter are heavily focused on showing you content they think you'd like, you may end up in a like-minded community where it's difficult to speak your mind without feeling ostracized. If anything, Rutgers' Keith Hampton says, these sites should go out of their way to show you things you might disagree with -- you'd be more likely to express yourself and participate in the democratic process.
[Image credit: Shutterstock/Arman Zhenikeyev]