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Spiral of Silence in Health and Risk Messaging

Summary and Keywords

The spiral of silence theory provides insight into the ways in which perceptions of public opinion can lead to changes in opinion expression behavior. Conceptualized in a political communication context, the central claim of the theory is that individuals’ fear of social isolation motivates them to continuously evaluate the climate of opinion through both experiences with the media and interpersonal communication. Upon assessment, individuals either find themselves in a situation where their opinion aligns with the majority or minority. Accordingly, those who find their opinion does not align with the dominant opinion are likely to conceal their opinions while those who find their opinion aligns with the majority are more likely to express them.

Empirical research testing the spiral of silence theory has predominately focused on measurement of focal variables and methods of empirical testing. Advances have been made in regard to micro-level factors, such as creating universally applicable measures of psychological attributes. However, limited work has explored macro-level factors, such as appropriateness of issues, application to computer-mediated communication environments, and tools used to identify circumstances vulnerable to spiral of silence effects. Nonetheless, the practical value of the spiral of silence theory for health and risk communicators can be utilized by modifying campaign efforts to anticipate and counteract fluxes in public opinion.

Keywords: public opinion, fear of isolation, willingness to self-censor, opinion expression, political communication, social media

Originated by Noelle-Neumann (1974), the spiral of silence theory explains how an individual’s perception of public opinion can alter their opinion expression behavior. The theory is based upon the fear of social isolation, an assumed instinct that causes individuals to continually monitor the opinion environment regarding a controversial topic. This is done in an effort to figure out which opinions dominate the public sphere and which are in the minority position. Using what Noelle-Neumann termed their quasi-statistical sense, individuals use their experiences with both interpersonal communication and media to examine the climate of opinion. The quasi-statistical sense describes the process estimating the strength of opposing sides in the public debate. This leads to a judgment about whether one’s opinion is in line with the majority or the minority, which influences whether an individual voices their opinion or remains silent.

Noelle-Neumann used evidence from conformity studies to support her conceptualization of the fear of isolation (Scheufele & Moy, 2000). The spiral of silence theory conceptualizes public opinion as conformity or social control (Noelle-Neumann, 1993), which has also been described as a reflection of majority beliefs (Glynn, Herbst, O’Keefe, Shapiro, & Lindeman, 2004). This view equates public opinion with the majority view, which accounts for the most popular opinion(s) that people will publically support. This means that the fear of being isolated is perceived to be more important than an individual’s own opinions and judgments (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). Within this view, the strength of an argument is based upon the strength one side has to threaten the opposing side with social isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). As such, when individuals determine whether their opinion aligns with the majority or minority they are led to one of two positions. One is a circumstance in which an individual perceives that their opinion is in agreement with the prevailing view. In this situation there is no anticipated fear of isolation, which leads an individual to opinion expression. The other circumstance occurs when an individual perceives that their opinion aligns with the minority position and/or the losing ground position. Due to anticipated fear of social isolation, if their true opinion were known, this situation leads an individual to opinion concealment. As a culmination of these aforementioned circumstances, the more popular opinion induces the tendency of agreeable others to speak up and disagreeable others to be silenced, which begins a spiraling process that establishes dominance of one opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). As such, one opinion on the controversial topic becomes increasingly weak—the other strengthens.

Discussion of the Literature

The spiral of silence theory generated research across disciplines, especially in the mass communication and political science fields. It is regarded as one of the most influential public opinion theories (Kennamer, 1990). The theory is widely accepted and promoted in textbooks across disciplines, likely due to the logical nature of its basic contention: individuals are likely to voice their opinion among agreeable others and less likely among those who are disagreeable. However, formal testing revealed many caveats of the spiral of silence theory, including both micro- and macro-level aspects. Micro-level contingent conditions consist of individual-level differences including: (a) psychological attributes, such as the fear of social isolation and related concepts, including communication apprehension and willingness to self-censor; (b) aspects of the individuals’ issue-attitudes, including attitude strength, importance, certitude, and their perceived opinion climate; and (c) communication influences, such as media use and interpersonal discussion. Macro-level elements include contextual factors such as issue topics and international applications used when empirically testing the theory.

Psychological Attributes

Throughout the assumptions noted by Noelle-Neumann (1974, 1993), the most prominent concern revolves around the social nature of mankind and the assumed fear of social isolation. Existent research has been concerned with identification and measurement of aspects of human nature that have to do with the need for socialization. This is important because the theory acknowledges the existence of a small portion of individuals who share minority opinions and may choose to speak out. This scenario represented a potential third position that may occur when comparing the perceived climate of public opinion to one’s own opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). This circumstance accounts for a minority of people who remain unshaken and willing to share their true opinion when others disagree.

Individuals who speak out on the topic in disagreeable situations are referred to as the hardcore. These individuals may not be subject to the spiral of silence and may differ from others on some psychological attribute that makes them less fearful of social isolation. In this conception, there is clearly an underlying indication that such individuals must possess some characteristic that makes them more willing to express an alternative opinion in the face of opposition. This is distinctly similar to the findings presented in conformity studies, which acknowledged that some factors residing within the subjects or personal qualities of individuals kept them from conforming. Identification of the hardcore remains a prevailing problem in existent research, but it has been proposed that identification can be accomplished by identifying and assessing fear of isolation and other underlying psychological attributes such as communication apprehension (Willnat, Lee, & Detenber, 2002) and willingness to self-censor (Hayes, Glynn, & Shanahan, 2005a, 2005b).

Fear of Isolation

According to the spiral of silence theory, it is the fear of isolation that causes individuals to continually check which opinions and behaviors are approved or disapproved of within their environment and thus are gaining or losing strength (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). As such, the fear of being socially ostracized is proposed as the motivating force behind the theory, causing individuals to continually monitor the climate of opinion in an effort to encourage social acceptance. However, individuals are not believed to be consciously aware of their own fear. Rather, it was believed that this is a characteristic of people that is genetically determined (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). Without extensive explanation, fear of isolation became a point of contention within the theory because it was assumed to be a constant. It was later noted that treating fear of social isolation as a measurable concept would be useful (Glynn & McLeod, 1985). Noelle-Neumann (1991) later suggested measurement with a trait-based embarrassment scale. To date, the proposal has not been followed, but conceptualization of fear of isolation as an individual-level characteristic has been used in subsequent tests of the theory (Hayes, Matthes, & Eveland, 2013).

Others have conceptualized fear of isolation as a state-based attribute, which assumes that fear is situation-specific. For example, fear of isolation has been measured by asking individuals about their concern of being treated differently if their opinions on a particular issue were known by others (Glynn & Park, 1997). Others have used several questions to assess emotions related to specific conversational situations (Moy, Domke, & Stamm, 2001; Scheufele, Shanahan, & Lee, 2001). Results of both showed a low state-based fear of isolation increased the likelihood that one would express their opinion. Others have measured fear of isolation as both a trait-based and state-based characteristic. For example, Neuwirth (2000) measured the concept through two factors: general fear and discussion fear. Results showed only the trait-based conception was a significant predictor. Similar approaches have been followed others (e.g., Ho & McLeod, 2008). While there have been some other approaches, such as treating this concept as a macro-level variable that varied among cultural groups (Scheufele & Moy, 2000), there is more acceptance of conceptualizing fear of isolation as a trait-based characteristic (Hayes et al., 2013). Recently, a short, unidimensional measurement of fear of social isolation has been created and is distinguishable from shyness, communication apprehension, and other similar measures (Hayes et al., 2013). The measure has been shown to be a reliable and valid measure of fear of social isolation, which is also differs from measurement of the related concept of willingness to self-censor.

Willingness to Self-censor

Willingness to self-censor is conceptualized as an individual difference in self-censorship, defined as withholding one’s true opinion about an issue from those they believe will disagree with their opinion. (Hayes et al., 2005a). This concept effectively measures a respondent’s self-monitoring of the public image they display. Although tests applying willingness to self-censor to the phenomenon are somewhat limited, initial results indicated that this concept may provide further ability to understand the inner workings of the spiral of silence theory.

Issue-attitudes and Opinion Climate

Testing the spiral of silence theory requires consideration of opinions on the issue under investigation and the perceived climate surrounding that particular issue. Therefore, all empirical applications of the spiral of silence theory include assessment of a participant’s true opinion(s) on an issue and characteristics of that opinion (e.g., strength, certainty). Using this assessment, researchers then evaluate others facets of opinions including the strength, certainty, and importance of one’s opinion and whether their opinion aligns with various others.

Attitude Strength

The strength of one’s opinion on a particular issue has been acknowledged as a factor that may influence the spiral of silence process. Although operationalization was not provided, Noelle-Neumann (1974) displayed an awareness of attitude strength as she explained her intention to compare supporters of either sides of an issue debate to understand group difference when one group was correct more consistently than the other. Since this time, scholars have attempted to examine attitude strength in differing ways. For instance, strength of attitudes about politics has been measured through assessment of interest in politics and intention to vote (Baldassare & Katz, 1996). Across multiple tests, individuals with a high level of attitude strength were significantly more willing to express their political views. However, this measurement is not a valid measurement opinion strength on a specific issue, which led others to propose a related concept termed opinion intensity. For example, Glynn and Park (1997) found individuals with a high level of opinion intensity, measured by asking respondents how concerned they were about a particular issue, were more likely to speak out than others.

Issue Importance

Although the spiral of silence theory was initially criticized for failing to recognize the level of involvement of an individual has with an issue (Salmon & Kline, 1985), the importance of an issue to an individual is explored in modern applications (e.g., Baldassare & Katz, 1996; Hayes, 2007; Willnat et al., 2002). Issue importance, also referred to as issue salience or relevance, can be defined as the importance of an issue to an individual. Research has found that individuals with a high level of personal concern about the topic are more willing to speak out about the topic, even when they face disagreement (Moy et al., 2001; Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990).

Attitude Certainty

The degree of confidence an individual has in regard to the correctness of their attitude has also been explored in theoretical tests. In fact, Matthes, Morrison, and Schemer (2010) proposed that this attitudinal assessment could aid in identification of the hardcore and may moderate the spiral of silence phenomenon in those who lacked attitude certainty and were therefore more likely to silence their opinions.

In the early 21st century, it appears that scholars agree that identification of the hardcore is a worthwhile endeavor and that proper explication is necessary to make this a testable assumption of the theory. Assessing aspects of issue-relevant attitudes, as seen in the concepts above, are explored in an effort to understand the hardcore. Yet as a result of the investment scholars have put into explicating the aforementioned psychological attributes, there is now greater understanding of their varying influences on the spiral of silence processes.

Opinion Climate

Tests of the spiral of silence theory require assessment of the opinion climate, a perceptual-based measure that is necessary to compare one’s opinion on an issue to their perception of the dominate opinion among others (Noelle-Neumann, 1977). As mentioned above, the spiral of silence theory operates with the understanding that an individual identifies their own opinion and then determines the opinion of others using their quasi-statistical sense. Assessment of what others think about a particular issue is measured by asking what most people think about a given issue without consideration of one’s personal opinion. This resulting comparison identifies the opinion climate, where either an individual’s opinion aligns with their perception of other opinions or their opinion does not align with their perception of other opinions. Perceptions of the opinion climate can be further differentiated between the present and the future. That is, the comparison between an individual’s opinion can be made to both their perceptions of public opinion on the topic currently and where they believe public opinion on the issue will be in the future. This allows for assessment of whether individuals perceive themselves to be in an opinion-congruent opinion climate or an incongruent-opinion climate.

Assessment of the opinion climate is accomplished among various reference groups, which are groups of peers an individual may compare themselves against. Subsequent tests of the theory have further differentiated among reference groups and have included (a) one’s close family and friends, (b) one’s local community, (c) the nation as a whole, and (d) the future nation as a whole (i.e., future opinion congruency). Each of these groups have been found to exhibit varying types of influence. For example, Moy et al. (2001) found individuals who perceived their opinion was shared by their close friends and family (i.e., reference groups) were more willing to speak out. Glynn and Park (1997) similarly found individuals who believe citizens in their community shared their opinion were also more willing to express their opinions. Assessment of the future opinion climate has also found that when individuals believe the majority of people will share their opinion in the future, then they are more willing to share their opinion in the present (Kim, 2012).

Issue Contexts

The spiral of silence phenomenon is only believed to prevail in discussion of value-laden issues or issues that contain an inherent moral component because these issues are capable of triggering the threat of and fear of isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). Without this component, the pressure of public opinion ceases to exist. Based on this broad criteria, a variety of issue topics have been utilized in prior investigations without much concern for how the issue may impact processes within the theory.

Consideration of issues used to test the theory was discussed by Salmon and Kline (1985) who believed that the visibility of an issue, or the amount of conflict surrounding an issue, may be important. They also proposed issues be assessed by how they are defined, their social significance, and precedence of the issue itself. Although they believed these characteristics may impact how the public connects to issues, these characteristics have since been overlooked. Issues used in empirical tests are still known to lack uniformity (Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990), which led to the suggestion to classify the variety of different issues being used in tests (Salmon & Glynn, 2009). Building upon the existent typologies, it was proposed that issues be categorized as either enduring, emerging, or transitory. Initial theoretical tests of these issue types have found that differences in the spiral of silence processes may depend on the focal issue. That is, types of opinion congruency were found to exhibit varying relationships with different types of issues. Specifically, future opinion congruency only appears to affect emerging issues while media opinion congruency affects enduring issues (Gearhart & Zhang, in press). Additionally, individual differences also appear to function differently across issue typologies.

Methods of Testing the Theory

Another area of contention concerns methodological approaches used in empirical tests of the spiral of silence theory. In line with Noelle-Neumann’s (1974, 1977), survey research has been the most abundantly used approach. Yet this approach has been debated and others have been utilized, especially laboratory experiments, field experiments, and secondary analysis (Glynn & Park, 1997).

Although there are a number of benefits to testing the spiral of silence theory with surveys, this approach is often criticized for its reliance on hypothetical scenarios. Also reliant upon existent survey data, secondary analysis has also been used (e.g., Baldassare & Katz, 1996; Gearhart & Zhang, 2015; Glynn & McLeod, 1985), albeit on a limited basis because of the finite number of data containing necessary variables. The use of controlled experiments has been successfully employed by empirical tests but remains limited by the inability to generalize results. Field experiments have also been attempted, although such approaches are limited, and there have been criticisms of how the dependent variable is assessed in such circumstances (e.g., Jeffres, Neuendorf, & Atkin, 1999).

Assessment of Dependent Variables in Spiral of Silence Research

The dependent variable tests of the spiral of silence concerns the willingness of an individual to voice their opinion on the issue at hand, also referred to as “speaking out.” Noelle-Neumann (1974, 1977) offered measurement, often referred to as the train test, which is assessed by asking participants in her studies to imagine they were on a train talking to a stranger about a controversial subject and asked how likely they would be to offer their own opinion in the conversation (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, 1977). Similarly, most studies have placed participants in situations where they find that either their opinion aligns with others or it does not. This manipulation occurs in one of two ways. In one case, researchers will use a hypothetical situation and ask participants about their willingness to speak out. In the second, researchers utilize a real-world situation in an effort to assess “actual” willingness to speak out.

The first variation, use of a hypothetical scenario, is dictated by the methodological approach. A hypothetical situation is a feasible approach in survey research. However, this approach requires that researchers use measures of behavioral intention after exposure to a hypothetical scenario. This means that willingness to speak out is measured through self-reported speculation of anticipated behavior, which have produced mixed results (Jeffres et al., 1999). Conversely, the second variation allows researchers to control a contrived situation. The control afforded by experimentation allows researchers to utilize a behavioral measure of speaking out. This assesses willingness to speak out in situations crafted to allow participants to choose whether they engage in actual opinion expression. This approach allows for a tangible measurement of willingness to speak out through actual behavior.

Although both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, the hypothetical situation is the most commonly used approach. Ideally, this assessment should ask participants about willingness to state their true opinion. However, researchers have freely manipulated this assessment without concern for how this may impact outcome. For example, researchers have asked participants about their likelihood of engaging in opinion expression among their family and friends (e.g., Huang, 2005), strangers met at a wedding reception (e.g., Lee, Detenber, Willnat, Aday, & Graf, 2004; Willnat et al., 2002), or a news reporter encountered on the street (e.g., Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990; Salmon & Oshagan, 1990). Measurement of the dependent variable has also been varied by asking about their willingness to engage in other behaviors such as signing a petition (e.g., Huang, 2005), joining a demonstration (Salmon & Oshagan, 1990), or donating money (Taylor, 1982). This change may greatly impact results of empirical tests of the theory (Jeffres et al., 1999).

Opinion Expression Avoidance Strategies

As discussed above, surveys utilizing a hypothetical scenario are the most common approach to spiral of silence research. This approach requires asking participants how they believe they would respond in the given situation. After the presentation of a scenario, respondents are then asked how likely an individual would be to express their opinion in a specific situation or how willing they would be to reveal their opinion in a particular circumstance. However, some assessments do not specifically ask about truthful opinion expression. For example, Neuwirth (2000) asked respondents how likely individuals would be to enter a conversation.

Utilizing willingness to speak out as the only dependent measure may not be sufficient because any verbal response may not be a truthful expression of opinion. Furthermore, the alternative outcome is referred to as remaining silent, which may be a socially acceptable form of behavior in the situations such as those used in tests of the theory. In such situations, people may engage with others while strategically working to avoid expressing their true opinion on the topic. This means that individuals may use verbal expressions similar to the way silence is conceptualized within the constraints of the theory. Therefore, speaking out and remaining silent should not be the only outcomes measured, and they should be further explicated.

Alternative ways of assessing the dependent variable have been recognized. In fact, Noelle-Neumann (1993) pointed to a variety of ways people express opinions such as displaying bumper stickers in support of a political candidate or wearing campaign buttons. Glynn and Park (1997) later assessed outcomes by identifying different approaches people take when choosing whether to engage in opinion expression with six statements. More recently, Matthes et al. (2010) measured opinion expression through assessment of the different ways people had previously expressed their opinions, such as voicing their opinion in front of generalized others, friends, neighbors, or significant others. In computer-mediated contexts, the dependent variable has been differently operationalized. In their initial study, McDevitt, Kiousis, and Wahl-Jorgensen (2003) found individuals with a minority opinion spoke up more often but also concealed their opinion. This was interpreted as a form of strategic silence, which differs from speaking out because it does not involve taking a stand on the issue at hand.

The need for distinction between speaking out and strategic forms of remaining silence is also evident in offline communication setting. Hayes (2007) proposed measurement of opinion expression avoidance strategies, defined as the ways one avoids expressing opinions in a social context. The proposed strategies can be interpreted as a strategic form of silence and include changing the conversation topic, expressing ambivalence on the issue, or lying in an effort to avoid opinion expression. Initial results have found that individuals who hold minority opinions are more likely to engaged in opinion expression avoidance strategies, indicative of the spiral of silence phenomenon (Hayes, 2007). Similar approaches have since been utilized in theory and remain an area for future development.

International Applications

One highly criticized aspect of the spiral of silence concerns whether contentions of the theory can be maintained in different cultural contexts and across national boundaries (Salmon & Glynn, 2009). The possibility has been raised that some of the inconsistencies identified in results of existent studies may be due to cultural differences (Scheufele, 2007). Specifically, differences between individualistic and collectivistic tendencies of various cultures have been identified as factors that hinder the applicability of the theory around the globe. The cultural characteristic of individualism/collectivism has the ability to influence the appropriateness of opinion expression in different settings. For instance, fear of isolation may be less pronounced in individualistic cultures where distinctiveness and variety of beliefs is celebrated, compared to collectivistic cultures where conformity is expected. Moreover, media use, control, and effects may differ from nation to nation, thus influencing the spiral of silence phenomena.

Although there are notable cross-cultural tests of the spiral of silence (e.g., Lee et al., 2004), most have been conducted on a singular country/culture. As such, findings that do not align with tenets of the theory have been viewed as exceptions to the rule. In response, there has been a call for broader treatment of the theory that incorporates cultural aspects, as well as variations in media use and effects, when applying the theory to different cultural contexts and interpreting findings (Salmon & Glynn, 2009). Such efforts are aimed at making the theory applicable across cultural boundaries.

More recently, as scholars have focused attention on measurement of focal variables, there have been attempts to create universally applicable assessment of psychological attributes. For example, Matthes et al. (2012) developed and/or refined measures of both fear of social isolation and willingness to self-censor that have been validated in nine countries across four continents. Although this work does not present fully executed tests of the spiral of silence theory, it offers advanced understanding of the universality of underlying factors within the theory.

Spiral of Silence in the 21st Century

Research on the spiral of silence theory has predominately focused on face-to-face communication settings. As interpersonal communication increasingly transitions to online contexts, there have been claims the theory may lack relevance because it makes assumptions that may be difficult to sustain in a new media environment (Metzger, 2009). Specifically, the theory was originated in a time when there was an assumed lack of diverse media content, which limited audience autonomy. Abilities afforded by the Internet, such as allowing individuals to create and interact with media content, connect directly to others through mediated spaces, and the ability to communicate anonymously are all reasons why some thought the spiral of silence would have limited predictive power in a new media era.

Media Environment

Within the spiral of silence theory, the media is believed to convey an overarching dominant opinion and is used by individuals as they make their evaluation of public opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1985). Noelle-Neumann (1981) claimed the mass media were consonant, ubiquitous, and cumulative in nature. In the time since, changes to the media environment has cast doubt on whether these characteristics remain relevant. Although the theory can be examined independently of these views, the modern environment presents obstacles that may hinder theoretical testing, including increased selectivity and the subjective tone of the new media environment, which opposes the objective media tone originally put forth (Schulz & Roessler, 2012).

Although Noelle-Neumann touched upon the role of the mass media, the concept was not originally explicated and included in empirical tests. Later research has found that even a rudimentary measure of media use can serve as a useful moderator, which has found that high media users are likely to perceive that others agree with their opinion and/or that the opinion they hold is on the side gaining strength (e.g., Gonzenbach, King, & Jablonski, 1999; Neuwirth, 2000). Yet, there remains a further need to understand the role of the media in spiral of silence processes.

Spiral of Silence in Online Contexts

Exploration of the spiral of silence in computer-mediated contexts is a prevailing area of scholarship. Existent research has attempted to apply the theory to a variety of online contexts such as chat-rooms (e.g., McDevitt et al., 2003), web-based bulletin boards (e.g., Yun & Park, 2011), and online focus groups (Ho & McLeod, 2008). This early research was primarily concerned with identifying theoretical support in seemingly anonymous online forums. Although these applications identified limited theoretical support, there was a lack of attention devoted to context-specific characteristics. In the early 21st century it was proposed that the spiral of silence theory may be suited for application to social network sites primarily composed of one’s real-world offline connections, making individuals aware of their self-presentation and inherent fear of isolation (Metzger, 2009). Applications to social networking sites have successfully found evidence of the spiral of silence in online social media environments (Gearhart & Zhang, 2014, 2015).

Application to Health and Risk Communicators

Attempting to place practical value on the spiral of silence theory has proven to be difficult because most empirical work has focused on identification and measurement of psychological attributes and methods of testing. These efforts have been aimed at theoretical justification. As a result, existent empirical applications of the spiral of silence theory have offered vague implications for practitioners. Nonetheless, the theory originated as Noelle-Neumann (1993) looked for an answer to an oddity she witnessed while conducting public opinion polls during an election campaign. Existent work has similarly offered practical implications that are relevant to public campaign efforts, such as issue advocacy campaigns and social movement organizations.

Fundamentally, the spiral of silence theory predicts that as a particular issue stance begins to lose ground it starts a spiraling process, which increasingly establishes the opposing opinion as the prevailing one. Therefore, health and risk communicators should aim to take advantage of the spiraling mechanism at the heart of the theory. This will be especially useful if tactics are created and implemented that help practitioners identify instances prone to potential spiral of silence effects. That is, when a situation where the spiral of silence may be likely to occur can be identified, campaign efforts can focus on bolstering the perception that a particular opinion is accepted while the other is declining. For instance, Shanahan, Scheufele, Yang, and Hizi (2004) found that as individuals perceived an increase in support for smoking legislation and were exposed to more frequent antismoking messages in the media, they indicated more willingness to speak out about smoking.

First, it is important to note that the theory has been empirically tested with issues that were identified as morally controversial and found to be experiencing a spiral of silence effect in hindsight. In order to place a practical relevance on the theory, it is necessary to identify particular issues and situations where there is potential for the spiraling process to occur. For instance, testing the theory with the topic of genetically modified food in South Korea failed to find a strong spiral of silence effect (Kim, 2012). It was acknowledged that the topic was not highly controversial and lacked the level of social visibility necessary to induce the spiral of silence. This means that organizations should be mindful of public opinion and media mentions in order to be best positioned to advance their stance on a particular topic.

Future efforts should focus on characteristics of the opinion environment that are indicative of the spiraling process. That is, attention should be paid to creating tools that can be used as a diagnostic roadmap to predict which voices are likely to be oppressed, which would allow communicators to incorporate the theory into campaign strategies. Such efforts would essentially transition the spiral of silence from an ad hoc theory to one that can be utilized proactively. Without the identification of communication circumstances that lead to the spiraling process, health and risk communicators lack the ability to plan campaign efforts focused on counteracting the spiral of silence. Formal identification of such situations would provide communicators with the tools necessary to anticipate fluxes in public opinion, allowing communicators to anticipate or counteract the spiraling process when there is potential for it to occur.

Crisis communicators are necessary for public health efforts, yet they often fight an uphill battle against public opinion. Health and risk communicators can also utilize the spiral of silence theory to aid in the creation of and dissemination of health-related messages. In the case of biotechnology, for example, scholars found that individuals who feel prepared to argue their opinion using scientific terminology are more likely to speak about the issue than those who rely on moral arguments (Priest, 2006). This type of research provides valuable information that has the potential to add to the success of a campaign about this topic. Campaign efforts that actively work to showcase support and tactics useful to present a particular viewpoint can work against the perception that public support is lacking. In this circumstance, campaign efforts can focus on helping individuals who hold a particular issue stance to feel as though their opinion is supported because messaging strategies can be tailored to convey that others share their position. These types of campaign efforts have the ability to effectively hinder the spiraling process.

Campaign efforts should also focus on raising alternative voices to counter the perceived dominant opinion. Outside of traditional mass media campaign efforts, grassroots efforts focused on interpersonal communication can be beneficial. On the taboo topic of HIV/AIDS in four countries, including Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Thailand, it was found that conversations about HIV prevalence counteracted the spiraling process and increased testing (Hendriksen et al., 2009). Similar tactics can also be accomplished through the strategic use of opinion leaders and the use of alternative media outlets, especially when the beneficial opinion is the one that is perceived to be losing ground among receivers of messages conveyed in mass media outlets. Opinion leaders, such as influential community members, have the ability to spread information to the generalized public. These individuals have the ability to confer credibility on the position they are promoting. In instances where prominent media organizations may be focused too much on a particular issue stance, alternative methods to reach the public can be used to counter the perception of dominant voices in traditional media. This approach has the ability to enhance the perception that a minority position is gaining ground.

Although alternative media take many forms, the new media environment offers advanced ability for health and risk communicators to take advantage of social networking tools. Strategic communication efforts should be centered on actively linking holders of an opinion with likeminded others. The public dimension of online social network sites has shown a renewed focus on the role of community. Therefore, the social media environment can be especially beneficial for interacting and growing support for particular points of view through strategic communication efforts. Through the utilization of social media, campaigns can connect and disseminate content directly to key publics, foster connections, and offer the opportunity for conversation.

Further Reading

Donsbach, W., Salmon, C. T., & Tsfati, Y. (2015). The spiral of silence: New perspectives on communication and public opinion. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

    Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence. Public opinion—our social skin (2d ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:


      Baldassare, M., & Katz, C. (1996). Measures of attitude strength as predictors of willingness to speak to the media. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 73, 147–158.Find this resource:

        Gearhart, S., & Zhang, W. (2014). Gay bullying and online opinion expression: Testing spiral of silence in the social media environment. Social Science Computer Review, 32, 18–36.Find this resource:

          Gearhart, S., & Zhang, W. (2015). ‘Was it something I said?’ ‘No, it was something you posted!’ A study of the spiral of silence theory in social media contexts. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 18, 208–213.Find this resource:

            Gearhart, S., & Zhang, W. (in press). Same spiral, different day? Testing the spiral of silence across issue types. Communication Research.Find this resource:

              Glynn, C. F., & Park, E. (1997). Reference groups, opinion intensity, and public opinion expression. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 9, 213–232.Find this resource:

                Glynn, C.J., Herbst, S., O’Keefe, G.J., Shapiro, R.Y., & Lindeman, M. (2004). Public opinion (2d ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview.Find this resource:

                  Glynn, C. J., & McLeod, J. M. (1985). Implications for the spiral of silence theory for communication and public opinion research. In K. R. Sanders, L. L. Kaid, & D. Nimmo (Eds.), Political communication yearbook 1984 (pp. 43–65). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

                    Gonzenbach, W. J., King, C., & Jablonski, P. (1999). Homosexuals and the military: An analysis of the spiral of silence. Howard Journal of Communication, 10, 281–296.Find this resource:

                      Hayes, A. (2007). Exploring the forms of self-censorship: On the spiral of silence and the use of opinion expression avoidance strategies. Journal of Communication, 57, 785–802.Find this resource:

                        Hayes, A., Glynn, C., & Shanahan, J. (2005a). Willingness to self-censor: A construct and measurement for public opinion research. International Journal of Public Opinion, 17, 298–323.Find this resource:

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