It’s well known that Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) users often divide themselves into camps, as the people they interact with and the stories they Like influences what the News Feed algorithm serves up next. It’s also not surprising that a people are less likely to express views that they think will be unpopular with their online peers, as shown in a recent Pew Research study, Social Media and the Spiral of Silence, but it turns out that the effect follows people offline and makes them less likely to speak up even when talking to friends and family.

Facebook and Twitter are the most public space

To figure out how social media affects political discourse, Pew decided to focus on the Snowden/NSA leaks because it was a widely publicized story and the country was nearly evenly divided on whether the surveillance program was justified (the data was collected when the only revelation was that the NSA had been collecting metadata).

The first finding, that people were more likely to discuss the leaks with friends and family, less likely in public spaces like work or a community meeting, and least likely on Facebook and Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) can be chalked up to keeping political opinions private. It would be hard for the average person to find a more public forum to express opinions than Twitter, so it’s natural that people are more guarded there as well.

Even on Facebook, where there are options to decide who can see a post and who can’t, the rules have changed so many times that many people don’t have a clear understanding of who exactly is going to see their posts and may default to greater discretion.

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Social media makes people believe they know others’ opinions

What seems much more surprising is that people who jump on social media multiple times a day are much less likely to discuss political topics in person, even with people who they believe agree with them. For example, people who sign on to Facebook at least a few times per day were half as likely to discuss the NSA leaks with friends at a restaurant, and regular Twitter user were 24% as likely to discuss it with colleagues as people who used Twitter less (or not at all). Believing that the people around them would agree with their opinion increased those percentages, but the difference was still significant.

The Pew Research study didn’t try to find why people become less willing to discuss politics in person, but one other finding seems like it is a good place to start. Twitter and Facebook users are more likely to believe that they already know other people’s opinions in the first place (not correctly, as other studies have shown). Some combination of increased social anxiety from a heavy social media diet coupled with the belief that we already know other people’s position could be interrupting important conversations before they even start.

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