Caught in a spiral of silence. Who really tells us what to think about?

In the past, researchers thought that the media are all-powerful!

They assumed that we are all the same, and that we all respond to the same messages in the same way. This effect was called the hypodermic needle, suggesting that messages are injected directly into our brain. You can check out more about the theory here. Today, researches are much more pessimistic about the extent to which the media can influence us. I mean, think about it. If someone in the media would tell you that it was cool to eat the spiciest chilli in the world, with the small extra remark that this may kill you, would you jump up, do it, and upload it on Youtube? Well, while this guy was stupid enough to do just that, I hope you aren’t. And please, this time, don’t prove me wrong!

The basics of agenda-setting

To be honest, our discussion of media effects today will be a bit superficial. After all, even experts don’t really understand what power the media really have. Now, the media set the agenda of what we talk about. And the media frame these issues in a certain way. By focusing on certain aspects of an issue, and through their use of language, they influence whether we should see the issue in a positive- or in a negative way.

However, because we are not all the same, because we have different experiences, because we were brought up in different ways, because we have different ideologies, we react to these messages in different ways. It’s not like you read in the news that ‘Tim is an asshole’, and bam, you think that he is an asshole. But what has happened then, is that you have something to talk about with your friends, aquantances, colleagues, and family. Chances are that from now on you will talk about Tim. And, what’s more, you will talk about the question: “is Tim an asshole?”. And of course, the mere fact that the word asshole appears in the question has an effect on how this discussion will end.

So a while has passed and you have talked with a bunch of people about this question. And you figured out, that most people think that yes, Tim is some serious asshole.

Enter the “Spiral of Silence”

And here comes the problem: the media told you that Tim is an asshole, but you have never met him before. Just like you don’t actually know most politicians, you don’t actually know Tim. All you know is that the media tell you that he is an asshole. For your friends, it may be the same. They also know him only through the media, and so they tell you that yes, he is an asshole. Now, what do you think: how will you think about him from now on?

What the spiral of silence tells us, is that people look at their immediate environment, their friends and so on, to decide how to think about an issue. If they feel like the majority of the people think in a certain way, then they are likely to adopt that opinion.

But what happens if the media and  the people tell you something different?

This question is where it becomes interesting. Imagine the media tell you that Tim is an assshole, but your  friends tell you that he is the kindest person in the world. How would you make your decision?

And once more, the human need for belonging, something I have talked about on several occasions, comes into the play. We want to belong with the group, because isolation is our biggest fear. So, when in doubt, it is likely that we will follow what our peers think. Through that process, norms develop.

Like I said before, the problem here is that the people around you probably have never met Tim before, either. In that way, when the media frame an issue in a certain way, they are setting the norm. The norm gets picked up by the people, and last but not least, you are most likely to follow it.

But remember, there’s still your own experiences, your own ideology and so on

And this is where it becomes tricky, where researchers are arguing. It is not really clear what happens if your own experiences, your own beliefs go against that of the norm. What I can say, though, is that for the matters of immigration, the spiral of silence can have dramatic effects.

Where we do not have experiences with people from other cultural backgrounds, we rely on the media, and on our sruroundings to tell us what to think. And I can remember very well: when I was going to school, I hardly ever had any contact with someone from the middle East, from Russia and so on. All the information I had about people from these cultural background thus was from the media, and from the opinions of my family and friends. And, of course, the same goes for them.

In other words: the stereotypes that the media evoke about migrants will, at least for the average citizen, most likely remain the same, forever.




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