Personal opinions, unpopular and otherwise, seem like the building blocks of the Internet: Wherever you go, people are talking passionately about things. But the plural of anecdotes is not data, and some Pew researchers tell a different story. In fact, people on social media appear to be less likely to express minority opinions, in a phenomenon the researchers call the “spiral of silence.” Worse yet, when they get offline, they take that reluctance with them.

Is the idea that the Internet expands minds and the scope of public conversations actually just a myth? And, by extension, are we doing the Internet totally wrong?

The study took a snapshot of 1,801 adults on the subject of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified information, a controversial issue in the U.S. Debate at the time was divided on whether the leak of such information is acceptable in the interests of the common good or unacceptable because it poses a potential risk to the government or individual safety. Furthermore, discussion on the scope of government surveillance was also contentious.

In general, people were more confident about joining conversations or bringing up the issue when they felt that friends and colleagues shared their opinions. This affirms a theory developed in 1974 by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the course of research on German attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s. The “spiral of silence,” as she called it, occurs when people with minority opinions felt reluctant to speak up, thus creating a situation where conversations and interactions were less diverse.

The findings in this case were extremely interesting. They found that for most of their survey pool (86 percent), people were willing to discuss the situation in person. Within a subset of Facebook and Twitter users, though, less than half (42 percent) were willing to bring it up on social media platforms. Furthermore, the research argued that “those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views on the Snowden-NSA story in many circumstances—in social media and in face-to-face encounters.”

Obviously, the study has flaws and provides evidence that we need more research rather than making a definitive statement on the issue. The sample size is relatively small, and the subject chosen as a test case wasn’t ideal; the very nature of the Snowden case made it into something that some people were wary of discussing because of concerns about government surveillance, as Sarah Perez notes at TechCrunch:

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the choice to use the Snowden situation as the basis for this particular study could be flawed—after all, social platforms, including Facebook, were implicated as being among the places the government tapped to listen in on citizens’ conversations. Perhaps citizens didn’t want to publicize an opinion on this particular matter, but would be more willing to do so on others.

The Internet is often framed as a freewheeling space where many opinions are entertained, treated seriously, and provided with a platform>—all opinions have value, and deserve to be heard, goes the refrain. We assume that minority opinions are being heard online and that the Internet provides a space for the free exchange of ideas. More importantly, it’s a place where people reach out across divides, educate each other, and challenge themselves to think outside the box, resulting in more enlightened attitudes offline.

These concepts are in fact a cornerstone of what’s come to be known as online social justice work, a collective body of work from people interacting on social media to discuss inequality and oppression. Many advocates active online argue that their work is important because their ideas percolate through a variety of Internet communities and thus to offline spaces, creating a more just world. While it’s possible that such advocates have a higher rate of engagement with people who hold different opinions, we need more research to confirm that, and there’s some pressing evidence arguing that this may not actually be the case.

Many social justice advocates bring up issues like burnout and frustration with trying to advocate in communities where the status quo is reinforced, which forces them back into the familiar domain of websites and social networks where people agree with their essential ideas.

Consequently, are many actually just talking into an echo chamber? If people aren’t actually using the Internet to discuss their beliefs and resist dominant narratives in the spaces they frequent, it would seem that our notions of how the Internet works and what it’s good for are in fact myths. And that we’re not using it correctly, because we’re not taking advantage of the tremendous potential audience trapped in Facebook and Twitter feeds, blog readerships, and more.

Clearly, there are exceptions to the rule of shrinking back into the familiarity of your own community, like Anita Sarkeesian, who was just forced from her home by virulent online abuse for her “Tropes vs. Women” series, which challenges social attitudes in video game culture. These exceptions illustrate precisely why some, especially liberal women, feel the need to self-censor: Because they fear that their minority opinions will attract such hatred that they’ll be put in personal danger.

If the state of discussion on the Internet is “shut up or we’ll hurt you,” we’re never going to have an opportunity to freely discuss the realm of issues we’re facing as a society—and as members of individual communities. This highlights the core of the problem that this study couldn’t easily quantify: Not whether people self-censor online (something demonstrated by the survey) but why. If we are using the Internet wrong and we want to reshape the way we interact with people, we need to challenge the attitude that it’s acceptable to meet opposing views with vicious verbal abuse and escalating threats that can eventually make people feel so unsafe that they leave their own homes.

Until it’s safe to express minority opinions online, maybe we shouldn’t be faulting people for staying in the echo chamber. They may be doing the Internet “wrong,” but they’re not the ones who started it.

Photo via LaVladina/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)