The Spiral of Silence

How fear of social isolation fuels populism and political correctness.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

The spir­al of silence is an influ­en­tial media theory.

The fear of guilt by asso­ci­ation is so power­ful that indi­vidu­als would con­sider sup­port­ing a cause they strongly dis­agree with — from fear of social isolation. 

However, this can also be a breed­ing ground for pop­u­lism when it deeply polar­ises society.

So, what’s going on here?

The Spiral of Silence for Fear of Isolation

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916−2010).

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s (1916 – 2010) well-doc­u­mented the­ory on the spir­al of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isol­a­tion due to peer exclu­sion will pres­sure the pub­lics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risk­ing social isol­a­tion, many choose silence over express­ing their genu­ine opinions.

To the indi­vidu­al, not isol­at­ing him­self is more import­ant than his own judge­ment. […] This is the point where the indi­vidu­al is vul­ner­able; this is where social groups can pun­ish him for fail­ing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916 – 2010)

As the dom­in­ant coali­tion gets to stand unop­posed, they push the con­fines of what’s accept­able down a nar­row­er and nar­row­er fun­nel (see also the Opinion Corridor). 1Opinion cor­ridor. (2023, April 8). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​O​p​i​n​i​o​n​_​c​o​r​r​i​dor

The smart way to keep people pass­ive and obed­i­ent is to strictly lim­it the spec­trum of accept­able opin­ion, but allow very lively debate with­in that spec­trum — even encour­age the more crit­ic­al and dis­sid­ent views. That gives people the sense that there’s free think­ing going on, while all the time the pre­sup­pos­i­tions of the sys­tem are being rein­forced by the lim­its put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Learn more: The Spiral of Silence

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How Silence Promotes Populism

The spir­al of silence can lead to unwanted effects, in this case — populism:

Group A is opposed to pop­u­lism and against allow­ing pop­u­lists to par­ti­cip­ate in demo­crat­ic con­texts (extreme pos­i­tion).

Group B is opposed to pop­u­lism and against allow­ing author­it­ies to impose lim­its on free speech (non-extreme pos­i­tion).

First, vocal lead­ers of both groups enter into debate.

Group B lead­ers accuse Group A of impos­ing lim­its on free speech, which might lead to fas­cism, but this can­’t stick since Group A holds anti-pop­u­list pos­i­tions across the board.

Group A lead­ers accuse Group A not of want­ing to safe­guard free speech but of being pop­u­list sup­port­ers. This unity cre­ates a false dicho­tomy that sticks.

Group B see its vocal lead­ers being pub­licly outed as pop­u­lists, a label that Group B fears. So they enter a state of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance (1957) and silence mor­al con­vic­tion to avoid becom­ing social out­casts.

As this beha­viour spir­als, Group A even­tu­ally frac­tion­ates into two vocal groups, one inside the spir­al of silence (rel­at­ive extreme pos­i­tion) and one out­side (rel­at­ive non-extreme pos­i­tion).

The res­ult: The mar­gin for “error” dimin­ishes while the group of “silenced” people stead­ily grows.

The sig­ni­fic­ant issue here is that Group A tends to assume mor­al superi­or­ity (by adopt­ing a more robust pos­i­tion), which allows them to resort to pro hom­inem argu­ments (also known as an hon­our by asso­ci­ation and the logic­al inverse of ad hom­inem argu­ments).

Deep into the spir­al of silence, the remain­ing vocal group might be widely unsup­por­ted — and might also be com­pletely unaware of this weak­ness due to their unchecked superi­or­ity complex. 

Also, they might be wield­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate influ­ence on minorities.

At this point, the play­ing field is open­ing up for a vocal lead­er ready to claim that pop­u­list pos­i­tion that, iron­ic­ally, a major­ity opposed from the start. 

Resorting to pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful argu­ments of mor­al superi­or­ity does­n’t affect a pop­u­list leader.

And, as the vocal minor­ity finally asks for broad sup­port to com­bat the emer­ging pop­u­lists, there aren’t enough people left to heed their call. 

The Antidote for Populism

The anti­dote for the spir­al of silence is to allow for dif­fer­ences in thoughts, opin­ions, and expres­sions of free speech.

Alas, the anti­dote for pop­u­lism is also to allow for dif­fer­ences in thoughts, opin­ions, and expres­sions of free speech.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo has nothing to do with public relations, of course. I share for no other reason that I happen to enjoy photography. Call it an “ornamental distraction”—and a subtle reminder to appreciate nature.

The cover photo has


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