A peculiar side effect of becoming known for voicing controversial views is that you become the recipient of the private confessions of others. As a loud critic of Islam, I am in the unique position of receiving private letters of support from fellow liberals who would never dare speak of this support out loud. They say that they wish they could be as forthright as I am, often revealing that it isn’t just fear of violence that stops them. They are afraid of the blowback from their social and professional circles. There is too much to lose, they say, and I am one of the few people they can come to for release. They feel safe speaking to me candidly—sharing the politically incorrect opinions they otherwise would never dare to verbalize. It is interesting to be in this position, as my experiences have convinced me that the political climate does not at all reflect the thoughts of the average person—or at the very least, the average atheist.
My social circle is composed largely of self-identified “freethinkers”—those who pride themselves on independent, fearless thinking. But their behavior tells a different tale. Nonconformity appears to be as rare a trait in “freethinking” circles as anywhere else.
Perhaps some of the fault lies in the platform so often used for communication: social media. Tech innovators have hoped their platforms would enrich dialogue and (in the words of Mark Zuckerberg) “give everyone a voice.”
This freedom of expression, however, appears to be tied to the level of anonymity.
No longer held back by the fear of social stigma, anonymous platforms certainly allow us to speak more freely, a freedom that can occasionally set loose our worst instincts. However, platforms that deny anonymity and force us to combine our offline and online worlds give rise to a host of other, more complex, issues.
Facebook is anything but anonymous; it forces the use of real identities even when its users would prefer otherwise. Despite pushback, it has maintained a “real-name policy” that requires users to use their authentic identity. Instead of creating a climate that gives “everyone a voice,” Facebook in particular may exacerbate a tendency described in the “Spiral of Silence” theory, first proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1993. According to this theory, our perceptions of public opinion influence our willingness to self-censor. We are always monitoring our social landscape, and when we feel our opinion is contrary to that of the majority, we silence ourselves due to a fear of social isolation.
The Pew Research Center tested the “Spiral of Silence” theory on social media in 2014, focusing on an important (and controversial) public issue: the Snowden leaks about the National Security Agency (NSA)’s surveillance program. Not only was the “Spiral of Silence” effect present online, the study found that people were actually “less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they were in person.” In addition, one’s level of Facebook use appeared to affect subjects’ willingness to discuss the matter in person. The average Facebook user was “half as likely as other people to say that they would be willing to voice their opinion with friends at a restaurant.”
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. On Facebook, we can more effectively monitor the opinions of our friends and family—all the better to pinpoint the intellectual no-go zones. We can pick up on shifts in political climate too minute to sense without the help of the nearly endless Facebook feed. In addition, our opinions are broadcast to a larger group of people simultaneously, so each expression may “cost” us far more than an offline encounter.
Perhaps most insidiously, the permanence of the internet leaves little room for mistakes. A tasteless joke said aloud may not linger in memory longer than a few minutes, but online it can come back to haunt us years later. It is not a coincidence that social media witch-hunting and pile-ons have become so routine. Not only is the humanity of the witch easier to ignore behind a keyboard, with an endless supply of permanently accessible communication it is a cakewalk to piece together disconnected encounters and create a villain out of thin air.
In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger describes another side effect of this permanence.
As much of what we say and do is stored and accessible through digital memory, our words and deeds may be judged not only by our present peers, but also by all our future ones … . We may thus become overly cautious about what we say—in other words, the future has a chilling effect on what we do in the present.
“Good!” you might say. “Perhaps my boss should think twice before inflicting his abhorrent humor on us.” But the effects won’t target offensive people alone (in fact, as Donald Trump exemplifies, the truly shameless will not be hindered at all). We are all affected, particularly the cautious and sensitive among us. “If we have to imagine how somebody years—perhaps decades into the future—may interpret and weigh our words,” Mayer-Schonberger continues, “we would be even more careful in formulating them.”
Humor, which is always a game of chance, isn’t the only casualty. The loss is a more general conversational spontaneity. If a political opinion or tasteless joke is more likely to cost us tomorrow, we will be less likely to take conversational risks. We may be less likely to wonder aloud and less likely to explore novel ideas or approaches in dialogue. The future is unknown, and it can be difficult to predict what we may regret later. The “safest” course of action may be to refrain from saying anything that could ever conceivably do harm.
In another time, being picky about what we write wouldn’t amount to an enormous change in our social behavior. Today, where chatting and instant messaging have replaced a substantial amount of verbal communication, what we say online is an important part of our casual social interactions.
Freethinkers aren’t immune from these effects. One recent study found that, as in real life, on Facebook “in an opinion climate where one’s friendship network is hostile to or does not share one’s political views, there is a greater incentive to self-censor if a person has strong attachments to that network.”
The nonreligious are still a minority in America—and, more broadly, in the world. This means that social media is often crucial for finding and maintaining connections with others like us. These networks can be vital to our happiness. Ironically, the price of these online freethought networks may be the dampening of free thought.
As the shock of Donald Trump’s election should have demonstrated, gauging opinions by what people choose to declare publicly is not always informative. A silenced opinion is not a nonexistent one. As our social world continues to transform, we can look forward to more nasty surprises. What we may never know, however, are the opportunities for progress that are stunted. Many ideas we treasure today were once controversial in their own time. But perhaps today we wouldn’t support them. It just isn’t worth the risk.