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Study shows people are afraid of being honest on social media

Social media is supposed to be a safe space where we can share who we are and express our opinions. But if you have ever seen a political debate blow up on Facebook, then you have probably learned your lesson — think twice about what you post online.

Social media started out as a great idea, where technology meets freedom of expression. However, both you and I know that as social media misuse becomes more prevalent — in the form of parent overshares, political propaganda and uncomfortable arguments — most users resign to keeping their traps shut. Just go with the flow, and no one gets hurt.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted with Rutgers University pinpointed what we already suspected: Social media does not encourage free-form discussion on hot-button topics. Instead, social pressures on sites like Facebook shame most of us into keeping quiet.

The survey was conducted on 1,801 American adults. Participants were asked about their willingness to discuss major current events, like the Edward Snowden leaks, both in person and on social media. Most social media users were hesitant to talk openly about such issues; only 42 percent of Twitter and Facebook users felt comfortable posting about a controversial topic like this online. In comparison, 86 percent of study participants would happily talk about a polarizing subject like Snowden in depth — as long as it was in person.

I agree. I started out several years ago with my Facebook account, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I wasn’t naive enough to think I would make a difference in the world, but I did think I would grab the bull by the horns and discuss important issues with my peers in a social space.

Nope. This did not happen. Now, I spend most of my free time hiding annoying or overly political friends on my news feed. The rest of the time I try to avoid Facebook land mines like the plague, because I don’t want to step on the toes of a zealous relative or acquaintance.

Analysts called my behavior the “spiral of science.” They have observed that, on social media, users are likely to keep their opinions to themselves if they feel they are in the minority. Much of this boils down to increased awareness of diverse opinions coupled with social niceties.

I’m as guilty of this silence as anyone else. I don’t want to start unnecessary conflict on social media, but this study has given me some food for thought. The next time I have a differing opinion, I’m going to speak up. The whole point of social media is to start a conversation. We can’t have a conversation if no one is really talking.

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