The outspoken minority

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When people form an opinion, they often agree with the majority. This is a long known phenomenon.
What is new is that social networks make use of precisely this phenomenon and thus significantly contribute to the formation of opinion. This is how the opinions of individuals can be exploited by clever networking and frequent posts – and especially with the use of Bots – in social media to suddenly result in a whole movement. It is all the more important, then, to constantly question and reflect on web content.
An example of opinion formation: the majority illusion

Studies have shown that what people in social networks perceive to be a majority opinion is often nothing more than an illusion. An American researcher Kristina Lerman of the University of Southern California has been working on this issue. She found out some remarkable things in connection with social networks and opinion formation: The process of how opinions are shaped has taken an entirely new dimension with the advent of social networks like Facebook or Twitter. She shows this in the following example.

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The 14 icons in the graphic above represent 14 different persons who are active in social networks. The three orange-colored individuals espouse an opinion that differs from the opinion of the gray people. So, it’s an opinion that is only held by the minority (3 from14). But the orange nodes – as opposed to the gray ones – are very active. They are connected to many more nodes, and especially important is that they are also connected to many gray nodes.

The more often they post their opinion on a certain topic, the more all of their “friends” are confronted with it. If the gray people – as shown in the graphic– are then also less active and are friends with more orange than gray people, they are presented with an illusion that the orange opinion is the majority opinion. The inclination is then to succumb to the illusion – even if in fact only a minority held the opinion at the outset.

Important terms on the subject

In the current debates on the formation of opinion several important terms are actually resurgent, some of which have been around for a long time in areas of research on freedom of expression and media effects.

Setting the agenda is about raising issues into the public consciousness for broad discussion, i.e. getting everybody to focus on certain things. It came about as a theory in 1972 in reference to the mass media of the time. The topics that get presented and thus supposedly represent reality are only a slice of objective reality. Journalists act as gatekeepers, who take a previously undefined topic or event and turn it into news.

Media and journalists exert a great power on public opinion formation through their ability to set the agenda. While they are unable to tell people what to think directly, they do dictate what people begin to form their opinions about. With the advent of the internet and social networks, many more actors have been able to take up roles as opinion leaders alongside the journalists.
The people we exchange with on social networks are above all people who share our opinions. This is why when we express our opinions, they are echoed back to us in the form of similar opinions or agreement and approval. This can ultimately raise up false reports to be perceived as truth and dominate the opinions of whole user groups. The echo chamber effect thus explains much of the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news.
Fake news is a term that has made its way into all kinds of languages from English. The “news” here is often fictitious (but often with a grain of truth). The goal of fake news is to cast a bad light on certain individuals or groups. Fake news spreads on the internet fast, particularly via social media. Thus it’s all the more important to question where information comes from and whether or not it’s actually true.
All activities on the internet are analyzed by means of algorithms: what a person reads, which web pages they use, when and how often, what the person likes etc. Search engines and social networks do not present uniform information to everybody – instead the user’s data and personal interests as well as their friends’ are used to categorize and filter the information shown to each person separately. The result: When using social networks, one only sees information that has been filtered according to one’s personal profile. Information and opinions that differ from one’s own are seldom shown to that person, if at all. They end up living in an information bubble.
The spiral of silence theory from the 1970s remains today one of the most important concepts in research about the creation and dissemination of public opinion. It states that the willingness of people to comment publicly on a much discussed topic decreases in direct correlation to how much an opinion differs from the majority-held opinion.

A study by the Pew Research Center (2014) found that the spiral of silence mechanism is especially effectual on social networks. It was based on a survey of 1,800 users of social media regarding the NSA revelations. Only 42% were willing to post their opinions on the revelations on social networks, while 86% would have been ready to discuss offline. The researchers concluded that the social networks and their simplistic connections to like-minded friends discourage people from expressing their opinion if it is one they perceive to be not widely held among their friends. That means people silenced themselves online.
Social bots are little programs that continuously learn how better to imitate human behavior. They pretend to be real user accounts on social networks. The “intelligence” of a social bot comes down to the bot trying to understand contents in order to react with the most authentic, “human” response possible. Social bots cannot always be spotted right away for what they are. That’s why bots can spread the content they generate to huge audiences very quickly.
More in our “Opinion formation” dossier
/mediabase/img/4333.jpg Social media can influence the personal views and opinions of children and young people. Digital opinion leaders
/mediabase/img/4008.gif Social networks are great for spreading useful information but there’s a lot of false information out there, especially on such networks. Fact, fact, fake, fact

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