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’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion might prompt contrarian thinkers to silence their genuine opinions.
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).
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 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
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.