The Role of Political Expression on Facebook

ORIGINAL ARTICLES
Facebook’s Spiral of Silence and Participation:
The Role of Political Expression on Facebook
and Partisan Strength in Political Participation
Mihee Kim, PhD
Abstract
This study investigated how Facebook’s spiral of silence influences political participation. For doing so, this
study focused on the roles of politically expressive activities on Facebook and individuals’ levels of partisan
strength. An online survey (N = 277) was conducted with Facebook users. Results showed that a perceived
hostile opinion climate on Facebook was negatively associated with political expression on Facebook, which, in
turn, was positively related with political participation. This indirect relationship was conditioned by the degree
of Facebook users’ partisan strength. Those with weak or moderate levels of partisan strength were less likely to
express their minority views, which led to decrease their political participation in the real world. Such indirect
relationship was not the case for those with high levels of partisan strength. Theoretical and political implications of these findings were discussed.
Keywords: Facebook, spiral of silence, political expression, political participation, partisan strength
Introduction
Individuals not only get political information but also
engage in politically expressive behaviors on social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter.1,2 Opinion expression on SNS has been explained by the spiral of
silence theory, which posits that those who see their opinions
to be in the minority will be less likely to express their
opinion in public.3 Previous studies have shown that those
who perceive a hostile climate of opinion on SNS are unlikely
to express their opinion on SNS.4–9 However, previous
studies have not fully addressed how Facebook’s spiral of
silence influences political participation in the real world.
This study fills a void by testing a model that incorporates
Facebook users’ perceived opinion climate and politically
expressive activities, and their actual political participation.
In addition, this study extends the literature by investigating a
moderating role of partisan strength in the relationship between perceived opinion climates and political expression on
Facebook, which contributes to identifying a specific condition for a spiral of silence on Facebook and its effects on
actual political participation.
Spiral of silence and cross-cutting networks
According to the spiral of silence theory,3 individuals’
perceptions of public opinion influence their willingness to
speak out. People estimate public opinion by closely monitoring social environments such as mass media.10 When they
think that the majority does not support their own points of
views, they are reluctant to express their opinion in public
because of a fear of social isolation.11 As a result, the majority view becomes louder over time, whereas the minority
view increasingly spirals to silence.12,13
As people increasingly depend on the Internet to seek
information and monitor others’ opinion, scholarly attention
is given to examine the spiral of silence phenomenon in
online environments. Research has shown that those who
perceive opinion climate to be hostile or incongruent are less
likely to provide their opinion in online forums,14,15 chat
rooms,16 and online review sites.17 The spiral of silence is
also observed in social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.4–9 For example, Gearhart and Zhang found
that those who encounter agreeable political content on SNS
are more likely to speak out, while those who encounter
disagreeable content on SNS are less likely to voice their
opinion.6 As the spiral of silence theory posits, the fear of
isolation on Facebook or Twitter networks appears to prevent
individuals from expressing seemingly unpopular opinions.6
The process of the spiral of silence on Facebook seems to
closely align with the effects of cross-cutting networks. Facebook allows users to interact with a lot of ‘‘Facebook
friends’’ from various walks of life.18 Facebook networks
include not only like-minded friends or family but also
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, South Korea.
CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING
Volume 19, Number 12, 2016
ª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2016.0137
696
acquaintances who may have politically different opinions.
Therefore, when people have a greater number of friends on
Facebook, they are more likely to be exposed to cross-cutting
perspectives.9 How cross-cutting networks in offline settings
influence political participation has been the subject of numerous studies of political behaviors such as voting.19 For
example, Mutz found that those who had cross-cutting social
or political networks in offline environments refrained from
participating in politics to protect their social relationship.20
Results suggest that exposure to political disagreement engenders ambivalent political views of those with high levels
of conflict avoidance, which is deterrent to political involvement. Given that Facebook users tend to communicate
with others who they already know rather than strangers,21
they may be more likely to avoid any conflicts that potentially hurt existing relationships. Therefore, those who perceive opinion distributions on Facebook to be hostile or
incongruent may be less likely to engage in political controversy on their Facebook network for maintaining interpersonal relationships. Based on previous studies on the
spiral of silence and cross-cutting networks, the present study
proposes the following hypothesis:
H1: Perceived hostile opinion climate on Facebook will be
negatively associated with political expression on Facebook.
Political expression on Facebook
and political participation
A growing body of research has provided empirical evidence that politically expressive activities on Facebook are
strongly associated with traditional political participations
such as participating in a protest, signing a petition, and
contributing money to a political campaign.22–25 Politically
expressive activities on Facebook may promote political
participation through three pathways such as expectation
effects, composition effects, and message release effects.26
Facebook users who have willingness to voice their opinions
on Facebook may give more attention to or carefully process
related messages posted by others.26 When composing a
message or comment on Facebook, they are likely to make
logical connections of ideas in mind and reflect their views or
attitudes.27 Message release on Facebook may create a
commitment to justify their expressed views28 and a feeling
that their voice has been heard on Facebook networks.26 This
overall process of political expression on Facebook may
contribute to increasing the expresser’s political knowledge
and political efficacy, which may enhance the cognitive and
attitudinal base for one’s political actions in offline settings.29 The treatment of politically expressive activities on
Facebook as an antecedent to physical participations is also
consistent with prior works on the mobilizing potential of
SNS in recent social movements such as Arab Spring Revolution.30,31 Taken together, it is arguable that politically
expressive actions on Facebook can ‘‘spill’’ over to the real
world.24 This discussion leads to the following hypothesis:
H2: Political expression on Facebook will be positively
associated with political participation.
Facebook political expression as a mediator
According to the communication mediation model,32,33 exposure to mass media fosters interpersonal communication such
as political talks, which in turn promotes political participation.
Extending the original model, Shah et al.,34 by using penal data,
provided evidence that information seeking via mass media
drives political expression online or offline, which facilitates
civic participation. This causal direction showed the best fit
compared to alternative causal directions. Subsequent studies
have confirmed the mediating role of online political expression.
For example, Lee35 showed that politically expressive activities
via web-based technologies such as e-mail and message boards
positively mediated the relationship between late-night comedy
viewing and political participation. Shah et al.36 also demonstrated that interactive political messaging in a chat room or
online forum played a mediating role in the relationship between
political advertising exposure and political participation.
In a same vein, informational use of Internet was found to
be related to politically expressive behaviors on online domains, which results in offline political participation indirectly through mobilization efforts.24 Moreover, a panel
study showed that SNS use for news indirectly influenced
political participation through politically expressive activities on SNS.37 The causal flow from informational use of
SNS to participation was stronger than the reverse causal
ordering. Based on prior research on the communication
mediation model, this study predicts that political expression
on Facebook will mediate the relationship between perceived
opinion climate on Facebook and offline political participation.
H3: Political expression on Facebook will mediate the relationship between perceived opinion climate on Facebook
and political participation.
Partisan strength as a moderator
According to the spiral of silence theory,3 ‘‘hard core’’
individuals speak out in public without considering opinion
climate. Because the hard core individuals have strong
opinions, they are not afraid of speaking out even if they
perceive themselves to be a minority.38 The idea of the hard
core was empirically tested. For example, McDonald et al.39
conceptualized the hard core as those who have unchangeable party/candidate preferences in the context of a presidential election. The spiral of silence was found only among
the non-hardcore (i.e., changeable) individuals. In a similar
vein, attitude strength was found to moderate the spiral of
silence effects.40 The spiral of silence was manifest only
among those who hold their attitudes with low or moderate
certainty. Those with high-attitude certainty were not reluctant to express politically minority opinions.
As mentioned above, exposure to cross-cutting perspectives
can reduce political participation by producing attitudinal
ambivalence.20 However, everyone does not experience the
attitudinal ambivalence when encountering dissimilar views.
Compared to those with strong opinions, those with less firmly
held views are more likely to experience the attitudinal ambivalence.35 Therefore, exposure to cross-cutting views on
Facebook may have detrimental effects on political expression
only among newcomers in politics. Taken together, it is predicted that the hypothesized relationship between perceived
opinion climates and political expression on Facebook will be
contingent on an individual’s partisan strength. Specifically,
for those with high levels of partisan strength, hostile opinion
climates on Facebook may not influence their political expression on Facebook. In contrast, for those with low levels of
FACEBOOK’S SPIRAL OF SILENCE 697
partisan strength, hostile opinion climates on Facebook may
stifle their willingness to voice their opinions on Facebook.
Thus, this study proposes the following hypothesis:
H4: Partisan strength will moderate the relationship
between perceived hostile opinion climate and political
expression on Facebook.
Finally, if H3 and H4 are supported by the data, this
suggests that hostile opinion climates on Facebook will influence Facebook users’ political participation indirectly
through their politically expressive behaviors on Facebook.
However, this indirect effect will vary depending on an individual’s partisan strength. This leads the last hypothesis:
H5: Partisan strength will moderate the indirect relationship between perceived hostile opinion climate on Facebook
and political participation through political expression on
Facebook.
Materials and Methods
Participants
An online survey was conducted using a panel sample of a
survey company based in South Korea. This company recruited Facebook users from its 1 million panel members.
Initially, a total of 470 Facebook users were recruited for this
study. For measuring clear perceptions of opinion climate
(i.e., hostile or congenial with participants’ political position),
Facebook users who indicated to hold a neutral political position were excluded. Finally, a total of 277 Facebook users
(142 men, 135 women; age: M = 39.63, SD = 11.7) participated in this survey. Participants’ education level was measured by a scale ranging from 1 (grade school) to 6 (graduate
school) (M = 4.69, SD = 0.82; Mdn = college degree). For income, participants chose one of six categories of total annual
income (M = 2.70, SD = 1.28; Mdn = $27,000 to $45,000).
Measurement
Partisan strength. Partisanship was first measured with a
single item: ‘‘How would you describe your political position?’’
(1 = strongly conservative, 7 = strongly liberal) (M = 4.27,
SD = 1.43). As mentioned above, because those with a neutral
political position were excluded, final data set did not include
score 4 (the midpoint) from the 7-point scale. Responses to the
item were folded to a 3-point scale to measure partisan strength
(M = 1.98, SD = 0.68) with a higher number indicating stronger
partisanship.
Perceived opinion climate on Facebook. Perceived opinion climate on Facebook was measured with two items: ‘‘How
would you describe political opinion or political content your
friends post on Facebook?’’ ‘‘How do you see the political views
of your Facebook friends?’’ (1 = strongly in favor of conservative, 7 = strongly in favor of liberal). Liberal participants’ scores
of each item were reversed to measure hostile opinion climate.
The mean of recoded scores of two items was taken as a measure
of perceived opinion climates (a = 0.73, M = 3.54, SD = 1.04).
The larger numbers indicate more hostile opinion climate.
Political expression on Facebook. Political expression
on Facebook was gauged with seven items adapted from
prior research.37 Participants were asked to indicate how
often they engage in seven different types of politically expressive behaviors on Facebook such as ‘‘posting my opinions related to politics or campaigning,’’ and ‘‘posting or
sharing news, photos, videos, or audio content about politics
or campaigning.’’ The items were rated on a 7-point scale
(1 = never, 7 = very often). All responses were averaged to
create an index of political expression on Facebook (a = 0.96,
M = 2.65, SD = 1.45).
Political participation. Drawing on existing research on
SNS users’ offline political participation,37,41 participants were
asked how often during the past 12 months they had engaged or
not in eight different political activities, including ‘‘attending a
public hearing or town hall meeting,’’ and ‘‘participating in any
demonstrations, protests, or marches.’’ Eight items were rated
on a 7-point scale (1 = never, 7 = very often). An index of political participation was produced by averaging responses to
each statement (a = 0.97, M = 2.31, SD = 1.36).
Control variables. Control variables included age, gender, the number of Facebook friends, and the amount and
intensity of Facebook use. The amount of Facebook use was
measured with a single item: ‘‘Approximately, how much
time per day have you spent using Facebook?’’ The intensity
of Facebook use was measured using the Facebook intensity
scale42 (a = 0.96, M = 3.32, SD = 1.63).
Results
This study tested the proposed hypotheses with the SPSS
PROCESS macro.43 All analyses computed 95 percent biascorrected confidence interval (CI) based on 10,000 bootstrapping samples.
A mediation analysis was conducted to test H1–H3. In
consistent with H1, perceived hostile opinion climate was
negatively associated with political expression on Facebook
(b = -0.25, SE = 0.08, t = -3.19, p < 0.01). Supporting H2,
results showed a significant positive relationship between
Hostile opinion climates on Facebook
-1.03 .00 1.03
Political expression on Facebook
3.00
2.80
2.60
2.40
2.20
2.00
High
Mean
Low
Partisan
strength
FIG. 1. Partisan strength as a moderator of the relationship between hostile opinion climates and political expression on Facebook.
698 KIM
political expression on Facebook and political participation
(b = 0.72, SE = 0.05, t = 13.60, p < 0.001).
H3 proposed that political expression on Facebook will
mediate the relationship between perceived hostile opinion
climate on Facebook and political participation. The bootstrap
results of the mediation test indicated that this mediated effect
was negative and statistically significant (b = -0.18, Boot
SE= 0.06, 95 percent CI [-0.308, -0.081]). A Sobel indirect
effect test also confirmed the significance of the mediating role
of political expression on Facebook (Sobel Z = -3.10, p < 0.01).
The significant direct effect of the perceived hostile opinion
climate on political participation was not found (b = 0.01,
SE= 0.06, t = 0.12, p = 0.91). Thus, the data supported H3.
A moderation analysis was conducted to test H4 predicting
the moderating role of partisan strength in the relationship
between perceived hostile opinion climate and political expression on Facebook. Results showed a significant interaction effect between perceived hostile opinion climate on
Facebook and partisan strength on the political expression
(b = 0.26, SE = 0.11, t = 2.49, p < 0.05). Figure 1 shows that a
negative relationship between perceived hostile opinion climate and political expression on Facebook was significant
among those who have low (b = -0.40, SE = 0.10, t = -4.16,
p < 0.001) and average levels (b = -0.22, SE = 0.07, t = -3.09,
p < 0.01) of partisan strength. This negative association was
not significant among those who have high levels of partisan
strength (b = -0.04, SE = 0.11, t = -0.42, p = 0.67).
H5 predicted that partisan strength will moderate the indirect
relationship between perceived hostile opinion climate on Facebook and political participation through political expression
on Facebook. As Figure 2 shows, a moderated mediation model
was specified to integrate the mediation and moderation tests
(Table 1). Consistent with H5, a conditional indirect relationship was found. For those who have low (b = -0.29, Boot
SE= 0.07, 95 percent CI [-0.432, -0.128]) and average (b =
-0.16, Boot SE= 0.05, 95 percent CI [-0.267, -0.063]) levels of
partisan strength, a negative indirect relationship between perceived hostile opinion climate on Facebook and political participation was statistically significant. However, this negative
indirect relationship was not significant among people with
high levels of partisan strength (b = -0.03, Boot SE= 0.07, 95
percent CI [-0.182, 0.106]).
Discussion
This study investigated how Facebook users’ perceived
hostile opinion climate on Facebook influences their political
FIG. 2. Moderated mediation effects: indirect relationship between hostile
opinion climates on Facebook and political participation through political
expression on Facebook that
is conditional upon partisan
strength (path coefficients
are unstandardized.
*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01,
***p < 0.001).
Table 1. Regression Results Predicting Political Expression on Facebook and Political Participation
Political expression on Facebook Political participation
b (SE) b (SE)
Control variables
Age 0.01 (0.01) -0.004 (0.005)
Gender -0.22 (0.14) -0.03 (0.10)
Facebook friends 0.0002 (0.0002) 0.0002 (0.0001)
Amount of Facebook use 0.0004 (0.05) -0.007 (0.03)
Intensity of Facebook use 0.57 (0.06)*** 0.02 (0.05)
Conceptual variables
Hostile opinion climate on Facebook -0.22 (0.07)** 0.01 (0.06)
Partisan strength 0.25 (0.10)*
Hostile opinion climate · Partisan strength 0.26 (0.11)*
Political expression on Facebook 0.72 (0.05)***
Constant 0.77 (0.32) 0.53 (0.29)
R2 0.44 0.61
N 277 277
b: Unstandardized regression coefficients. Gender: 0 = Male, 1 = Female. Hostile opinion climate on Facebook and partisan strength were
mean centered before computing the interaction term.
*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.
FACEBOOK’S SPIRAL OF SILENCE 699
participation. For doing so, this study focused on the roles of
political expression on Facebook and individuals’ levels of
partisanship. This study found that perceived hostile opinion
climate on Facebook was negatively associated with political
expression on Facebook, which, in turn, was positively related with political participation. This indirect relationship
was conditioned by the degree of Facebook users’ partisan
strength. Those with weak or moderate levels of partisan
strength were less likely to express their minority views,
which led to decrease their political participation in the real
world. Such indirect relationship was not the case for those
with high levels of partisan strength.
The findings of this study have several theoretical and
political implications. First, this study extends previous research on the relationship between SNS use and political
participation44–46 by demonstrating that individuals’ perceptions of opinion climates on SNS play a role in predicting
their actual participation. Prior research has shown that informational use of SNS fosters opinion expression on SNS,
which promotes offline political participation.37 As the spiral
of silence theory posits, SNS users’ opinion expression may
depend on their perceptions of opinion distribution on
SNS.4–9 Therefore, informational use of SNS could not be
enough for explaining politically expressive activities on
SNS and political participation. This study discerned between different perceptions of opinion climate on Facebook
(congenial or hostile), which contributes to a deeper understanding of the nuanced relationship between SNS use and
political participation.
Second, this study provides insights into individual differences in the spiral of silence process on Facebook. Several
studies have noted that such factors as issue importance have
a liberating effect on opinion expression on SNS.5,6 However, very little research has directly tested the notion of
‘‘hard core’’ individuals in the context of Facebook. This
study adds to the spiral of silence literature by directly examining whether Facebook users’ partisan strength moderates the relationship between their perceived opinion
climate and opinion expression on Facebook. Consistent
with offline research on the spiral of silence,39,40 there is a
spiral of silence only for Facebook users with low or moderate levels of partisan strength. Furthermore, this study
suggests that perceived opinion climates on Facebook only
determine the variance of offline political activities of those
with low or moderate partisan strength. For those with strong
partisanship, perceived opinion climates on Facebook do not
have any impact on physical participation.
Third, this study provides important insights into the political functions of Facebook by shedding some light on the
question of whether network characteristics of Facebook
encourage or discourage political participation. Those who
have heterogonous networks on Facebook are more likely to
encounter cross-cutting political views on Facebook.47 The
network heterogeneity on Facebook may arguably contribute
to the democratic process by providing citizens with opportunities for considering different opinions and increasing
levels of political tolerance.48 However, this study suggests
that the optimistic prediction should be reconsidered by
showing that Facebook network heterogeneity may be detrimental for opinion expression and political participation
especially among those with low levels of partisan strength.
However, the findings of this study can be interpreted in
different ways. Those who have homogenous networks on
Facebook are more likely to view congruent political opinions on Facebook. This study shows that those who perceive
opinion climates on Facebook to be congenial are more engaged in political expression on Facebook, which, in turn,
increases their political participation. Facebook users can be
selectively exposed to political content supporting their own
position by following ideologically congruent media or
friending those with similar viewpoints. The results of this
study suggest that if Facebook users are selectively exposed
to news content or postings with attitudinal congruence, no
one may feel to be a minority on Facebook. Selective exposure to congruent political content on Facebook may lead
Facebook users who support different political camps (liberals or conservatives) to perceive opinion distributions on
Facebook to be congenial or supportive, which may increase
voices from both sides of the political spectrum on Facebook
and promote political engagement in the real world.
This study has several limitations to note. First, this study
assumed the causal flow that goes from political expression
on Facebook to political participation. However, this study
cannot exclude the possibility that political engagement in
general may promote opinion expression on Facebook.
Those who frequently participate in offline political activities may use Facebook as a channel for distributing their
opinion and mobilizing others in their activities. It is also
plausible that online political expression and offline political participation influence each other. Actually, a recent
meta-analysis questions the casual effects of SNS use on
participation.49 Therefore, given that this study used crosssectional survey data, the causal direction should be interpreted with caution. Future studies should conduct longitudinal analyses to shed more light on the causality. Second,
this study did not measure Facebook users’ perceptions of
opinion climate, opinion expression, and political participation in the context of a specific issue. The void of topical
issue may challenge the results. Third, given that people,
especially in South Korea, increasingly have political conversations via mobile messenger applications such as Kakao
Talk, future studies need to examine the use of mobile
messengers in political contexts. Last, this study only
considered Facebook users with partisanship. Future study
should do well to investigate how Facebook use influences
political interest or political participation of those with no
partisanship.
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing financial interests exist.
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Address correspondence to:
Dr. Mihee Kim
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication
Sungkyunkwan University
25-2, Sungkyunkwan-Ro
Jongno-Gu
Seoul 110-745
South Korea
E-mail: [email protected]
702 KIM
Copyright of CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking is the property of Mary Ann
Liebert, Inc. and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a
listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print,
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