Spiral of Silence and the Media



In the court of public opinion, those who voice their agreement or disagreement in response to the day’s issues are in a unique position. The power of the spoken word has been used to create social change. The same power has been misused to incite violence and create confusion among the masses. Elisabeth Noelle- Neumann’s, 2009, theory of Spiral of Silence explains the how the court of public opinion can influence, and also create, an ‘us versus them’ mentality, giving rise to a majority/minority culture.

Public opinion defined by this theory is an attitude one can express without running danger of isolating oneself; a tangible force that keeps people in line. In conjunction with Neumann’s’ theory, John Locke, a 17th century philosopher, “outlined three forms of law-divine, civil and opinion…an attitude one can express without running the danger of isolating oneself.” In addition, “he claimed that the law of opinion is the only law by which people really abide.”(Neumann 2009) Conforming to the opinion of the majority or being the minority opinion places those who are on either side at an advantage or disadvantage. The risk of being an outsider speaks to the most basic urge a human being longs for, the urge to be accepted or to feel a part of a community or movement. Neumann’s Spiral of Silence provides an avenue for greater understanding of this basic need. (p. 372)

Spiral of Silence

To understand the theory, “we must understand people’s extraordinary sensitivity to the ever-changing standards of what society will tolerate.” (Neumann 2009) Viewing the theory though media, specifically television, the effect on public opinion is exacerbated due to the overwhelming influence the medium has on the public. (p.372) Agenda setting theory, akin to the Spiral of Silence theory, states that  those who set the topics discussed via TV, radio, or related media, may not be successful in telling the public what to think, but is highly successful in telling the people what to think about. Newspapers, television, and the internet have the ability to present issues in a way that carries over into everyday life. The public in a sense, whether passionate or dispassionate regarding said issue, automatically creates separation the moment the seed is planted. In other words, once the agenda is set, a majority/ minority divide is instantaneous.

Neumann’s states that “the human ability to discern the climate of public opinion… is fixed on five bodily receptors through which people sense their environment: eye, ear, tongue, nose, and skin.”(Neumann 2009) It is suggested in context that humans have a hypothetical sixth sense. This sixth sense as it relates to Spiral of Silence theory is deemed the quasi-statistical organ which “…tallies up information about what society in general is thinking or feeling.” Neumann elaborates,” it’s as if people come with an antennae … that shifts in the social breeze…when a swing in the climate occurs for or against a party, a person, or particular idea, it seems to be sensed everywhere at almost exactly at the same time by [everybody]” (p.372-373)

For example, let’s look at the 2008 election of then Senator Obama. On the cusp of history, the media was able to capture and document the swell of optimism unlike the United States has known for some time. That optimism voiced by many was captured perfectly by the newly elected President,” If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer…It’s been a long time coming,” said the newly elected President.  He continued, “…but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”  (New York Times 2008) Although the word change is vague, yet apparent, as the Senator Obama became the United States first African American president, the sentiment applies the quasi-statistical organ Neumann mentions. During this time in 2008 in the wake of a controversial Bush administration, the slogan Yes We Can, but became synonymous the idea of unity in an environment what was extremely polarized and deeply divided. Media during the time of the election was able to capture the sentiment and energy of the ‘Yes We Can’ movement. Thus giving rise to a majority/minority culture felt throughout America.

Amid the sea change, ideas of the legitimacy of Senator Obama’s status as a United States citizen sparked debate.  Neumann believes that “… direct observation give us only a small proportion of the information we use; he print and electronic media provides most of our knowledge about the world around us.” (Neumann, 2009) The observation in this example speaks to what Neumann called pluralistic ignorance: a mistaken idea that everyone thinks like they (the majority/minority) do.  Pluralistic ignorance can fuel the majority opinion or become the minority opinion.  Take the case of the “birther” controversy, after providing his birth certificate, it was verified that then Senator Obama was a U.S. citizen. Still the minority opinion resonated.  The same quasi-statistical sense is also apparent in those who find themselves outside of the mainstream. Without reservation, the fringe is still …” willing and able to command media attention…” even if their opinions aren’t well thought out. The media’s “role in crystallizing public opinion becomes critical for those who desire to shape the public mood.”(p.375 ) Taking the theory a step further, the “spiral of silence” theory doesn’t treat only the increasing dominance of opinion that already commands a majority, but can also account for any opinion that is “gaining ground.” Communications scholar Jim Kuypers adds that framing is the key component when an issue gains ground. Kuyper says that:

Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea.” (Kuypers 2011)

Commenting on the power of broadcast media Neumann wrote “ I never found that spiral of silence that goes against the tenor of the media, for the willingness to speak out depends in part upon sensing  that there is support and legitimation from the media.” (p.375)

Isolation, Fear, and the Spiral of Silence

The same legitimations from the media made the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell act of 1993 a hot button issue. Later to be repealed, the entitled act is the spiral of silence. Found in David Burrelli’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The Law and Military Policy on Same-Sex Behavior Burrelli (2010) summarized the act:

New laws and regulations pertaining to homosexuality and U.S. military service came into effect reflecting a compromise in policy. This compromise, colloquially referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” holds that the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in same-sex acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion which are the essence of military capability. Under this policy, but not the law, service members are not to be asked about nor allowed to discuss their “same-sex orientation.” The law itself does not prevent service members from being asked about their sexuality.

In contrast, and along with Neumann’s theory, the philosopher John Lock noted there are three forms of law-divine, civil and opinion…an attitude one can express without running the danger of isolating oneself.”  To Locke’s theory, Fox news reporter Todd Starnes brought attention to a letter written opposing same sex marriage by then Tech. Sargent Layne Wilson in July 2012. Tech Sargent Wilson was reprimanded by his superiors for “failing to render the proper respect to a commissioned officer” after repeated insubordination for his anti-gay views. (Brinker 2011) The religious subtext draped over the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell act found a platform via media giving voice to religious groups, conservative think tanks, and other political groups subjugating a faction of the population by disallowing those who are homosexual to speak out while serving their country. Exacerbating the issue is the comment of Todd Starnes in response to the soldiers reprimand:

“…stifling Wilson’s religious freedom, rather than a stark case of insubordination. Disregarding longstanding military rules, Wilson condemned his superiors for allowing the ceremony to go ahead: “This is wrong on so many levels,” Wilson wrote. “If they wanted to get married in a hotel that is one thing. Our base chapels are a place of worship and this is a mockery to God and our military core values. I have proudly served 27 years and this is a slap in the face to us who have put our lives on the line for this country. I hope sir that you will take appropriate action so this does not happen again.”(Brinker 2011)

According to Neumann (2009) “the fear of isolation is the centrifugal force that accelerates the spiral of silence.” Fear of retaliation by fellow member military members against those who would are homosexual muted many men and women.  Upon the repeal of DADT groups like the Family Research Council feared that having openly gay men and women serve would “…undermine unit cohesion, increase sexual assault…and risk millions of lives, although a comprehensive survey by the Pentagon found that repealing DADT would not hinder military performance.” (Marz 2012) Yet, the pervasive sentiment held by the majority of the population, and legislated by Congress, forces a spiral of silence on those who were already deemed outside the mainstream.


On the whole, Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory is profound. An intuitive concept, Neumann explores what makes the spiral of silence so compelling and the media’s role in appealing to the majority or minority opinion.  She states (2009) that “…all types of media…” are “…agents of the hypothetical sixth sense” and that “…opinions are supported by the influential media are often overestimated.” The peace that comes from belonging or being accepted is often overlooked. A sentiment echoed by Mother Teresa speaks to Neumann’s theory, “The worst sickness is not leprosy… but the feeling of being respected by no one, of being unloved, deserted by everyone.”(374)


Neumann’s theory resonated with me on many levels. The fear which drives the spiral of silence, is an emotion that all can relate to. The media can feed the fear of the fringed opinion by not voice a counterpoint to the main point of discussion. Those who are in the minority will automatically feel isolated lacking someone or another point of view that speaks to their concerns. Unable to express your feelings, renders a person mute, stripping said individual of all power to a degree. This position may force the minority opinion to adopt the majority perspective just so that they aren’t ostracized or labeled a contrarian.


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