According to two of this week’s readings, “The Spiral of Silence: Linking Individual and Society Through Communication,” by Charles T. Salmon and Chi-Yung Moh, and “Public Opinion du Jour: An Examination of the Spiral of Silence,” by Carroll J. Glynn and Jack M. McLeod, when there is a major shift in public opinion in our society, it is often due to a phenomenon known as the “spiral of silence” effect. Studies have repeatedly shown that the “spiral of silence” effect takes place when the prevailing opinion in society gains strength among individuals who know that their opinion is becoming increasingly popular, whereas those who feel that their opinions are “losing ground” often silence themselves out of fear that they will be criticized by those around them. This “spiral of silence” effect was first noted by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman, who composed this theory after researching the changing public opinion among German citizens several decades ago. As Noelle-Neuman’s theory states, one’s perception of the distribution of public opinion motivates one’s willingness to express political opinions (Glynn and McLeod 1).
Noelle-Neumann’s theory is based on the concept that “society is a potentially intimidating environment for the individual, a setting in which intense social pressure can be brought to bear on the person who dares to test the boundaries of the crowd” (Salmon and Moh 146). In addition, the media also has a strong influence among many individuals. “Noelle-Neuman ascribes a particular importance to the mass media’s position in contemporary society. The media are, in her words, ‘ubiquitous’ and ‘consonant’”(Salmon and Moh 147). Since social pressure can intimidate many individuals to silence their political opinions, and the mass media often enforces the dominant opinion in society as well, it comes as no surprise that the “spiral of silence” effect takes place among individuals who do not share the opinion that is held by the majority.
A prime example of this was demonstrated within our society during the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election. According to a Los Angeles Times poll dated August 20, 2008, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were in a statistical tie among potential voters at the time. However, the Los Angeles Times found in another poll dated October 15, 2008 that Barack Obama had pulled away to a nine point advantage over John McCain. The August poll stated that Obama was leading McCain 45% to 43%; however the October poll found that Obama was leading McCain 50% to 41%. As we all know by now, Barack Obama won the presidential election over McCain in a decisive fashion. The question is, what happened between August and October that changed things so dramatically?
Clearly, the “spiraling of silence” effect was at play as Obama jumped out to a commanding lead over McCain shortly before the election. The media coverage prior to the election showed that McCain was losing touch with many voters, and the high amount of controversy surrounding his running mate, Sarah Palin, surely did not help him either. On the other hand, the media also showed that Obama was becoming extremely successful at winning over voters, particularly when it came to younger audiences. Therefore, many Obama supporters had reason to believe that their opinions were gaining new ground, and many undecided voters quickly jumped on the bandwagon. However, McCain supporters became quickly silenced during this turn of events, and it resulted in a clear lack of support for their candidate on Election Day. This is proof that the “spiraling of silence” effect often holds true in our society, and in this case, it even determined the final outcome of an election.