Americans would rather debate politics IRL than online


Twitter helped rally crowds in Tahrir Square and Gezi Park, but when it comes to debating political topics, Americans are more likely to connect offline than on social media. Those are the results of a new study that surveyed US residents about how and when they talked to friends and colleagues about tracking by the NSA and Edward Snowden.

Eighty-six percent of people said they would discuss the issue over dinner or at a restaurant, but only 42 percent of people who had Facebook and Twitter accounts said they would discuss the issue online, researchers from Rutgers University and Pew report.

Last summer, just as news about the NSA’s tracking activities was reaching a peak, researchers called 1,801 adults all over the country to ask about how they felt about debating political topics.

“The goal was to try and understand how new technologies like social media influence how people deliberate and discuss important social issues,” said Keith Hampton, associate professor at the department of communications at Rutgers University, who led the study. Because the government surveillance story was timely, researchers framed questions about that.

If the topic of the government surveillance programs came up in these settings, how willing would you be to join in the conversation?

Participants were asked if they used social media, and how likely they were to discuss Edward Snowden or NSA activities online, and in interactions in-person. Half of the respondents were called on their cell phones and the other half were called on the landline. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

In general, people who weren’t on social media were more likely to discuss the news with their colleagues, or friends, or at home at the dinner table. People who thought their opinion was not going to be shared by most of their audience tended to not want to discuss the issue. Also, “people who used social media were even less likely to have this conversation in person,” says Hampton.

Why? If you’ve watched interactions on Twitter of Facebook you’re probably more aware of a “diversity of opinion,” Hampton said. Also, though the present data doesn’t show this, his theory is that people on Twitter or Facebook are used to seeing a critical response to non-majority views.

“They see behavior online where people who express a minority opinion subject to harassment or bullying,” he said. “It may be that social media users don’t even need  to be in the minority opinion to be afraid of speaking out.”

I asked Hampton if the subject of the questions could have influenced who took the survey and how they answered. In other words, would you think twice about debating government surveillance on the very same channels that were purportedly being watched? Or admitting to it, at any rate?

“Are people afraid of the NSA and therefore not talking about the NSA security on Facebook and Twitter? It doesn’t seem very likely,” Hampton said.

Another point to note is that this survey was conducted in the United States. In other countries where governments react to criticism online, anonymous political channels play a different role for citizens critical of their regime.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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