THE long-held notion that new media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the great leveller of political participation online has been debunked, at least according to a new survey.
In a study covering some 1,800 adult respondents, researchers found that the spiral of silence - a tendency of people not to speak up on policy issues in public if they believe they hold a minority view - occurs as much in cyberspace as it does in real life.
In fact, the results suggest that some people may be even less inclined to disagree with the majority in cyberspace than they would in person.
The findings came from a study by Pew Research that involved asking people about their willingness to discuss the controversial leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Some 86 per cent said they were willing to discuss the issue in person, while just 42 per cent said they would post about it on Twitter and Facebook.
And of the 14 per cent who were unwilling to talk about the issue in person, only 0.3 per cent were willing to take those views online - an indication that social media did little to help break down the walls.
"We found that those people who have the strongest opinions on an issue are the most likely to speak out through social media," Dr Keith Hampton, the Rutgers University professor who co- authored the study, told The Straits Times.
"In the example of those with a very strong opinion, this alone is enough to overcome the spiral of silence. The tendency is one reason why minority, and possibly more moderate, voices are less likely to join the conversation."
The issue of social media's role in encouraging online discourse and the ability of netizens to self-moderate hits close to home for many Singaporeans.
The past few years have seen several moves by the Government deemed as bids to regulate online discourse, as well as a string of incidents where an online mob hounded individuals who made elitist or racist postings.
At a dialogue last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamented how information disseminated quickly online has been known to trigger knee-jerk reactions.
"In Singapore sometimes, when someone says something outrageous, the next day everybody knows and expresses great outrage... Yes, it was outrageous, but do we need to get worked up every time that happens?"
The study was conducted from Aug 7 to Sept 16 last year. Researchers said they chose to poll people on the Snowden issue because it was clear from other surveys that Americans were deeply divided on the matter. They were careful to note the limitations of the study and said they did not try to explore the reasons for the self-censorship online.
Mr Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Centre, however, offered this theory.
"One possible explanation is that social media users are more aware of the diversity of opinions around them - especially on an issue where there is divided opinion... This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend," he said.