Aug 26, 2014 · 4 minutes

Everyone knows the old saying that's handy around the holidays, "Don't talk about religion or politics in polite company" -- that is unless you come from one of those families where the children somehow didn't rebel against every ideal their parents hold dear. Indeed, research from before the days of the Internet indicates that, unsurprisingly, people tend to stay quiet on issues when they believe they hold an unpopular opinion, either compared to the nation at large, or in a communication venue as small as a dinner table.

But what about on the Internet, particularly on popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? Do these more open, democratized networks allow people to speak more freely, because users can do so from the safety of their computers or smartphones and not deal with all that in-person awkwardness?

A new study from Pew suggests that the answer is no -- and in fact social media may make people even less likely to share unpopular opinions.

Pew researchers surveyed 1,801 adults and asked them a variety of questions about the Edward Snowden leaks -- a fairly contentious issue considering that 44 percent say the leaks hurt the public while 49 percent say the revelations served the public interest.

The researchers found a huge disparity between the number of people willing to talk about NSA surveillance in person (86 percent) versus on social media (only 42 percent). Granted, that statistic could be skewed by people's fears, warranted or not, that the government is listening when they post terms like "NSA" or "Snowden" or "terrorism" to Facebook. But there's also the larger issue that an in-person conversation is usually limited to small groups, whereas a tweet or Facebook post could be seen by anyone from employers, present and future, to extended family members. You don't want your grandma to think the terrorists have won because you support Edward Snowden.

What about the 14 percent who wouldn't talk about the NSA in-person? Was social media a kind of safe haven for them? No, writes Pew -- only 0.3% of those respondents were willing to talk about the issue on social media.

Pew then took into consideration whether or not respondents felt their opinions were unpopular with their offline and online peers. Offline, respondents said they were three times more likely to join a conversation at work about Snowden if they thought their peers agreed with them. On Facebook, that increase in likelihood was lower, but still significant: "If a person felt that people in their Facebook network agreed with their opinion about the Snowden-NSA issue, they were about twice as likely to join a discussion on Facebook about this issue," Pew writes.

It's little wonder the mob mentality has extended from the meatspace into online arenas. Standing up to a mob in real life could get you killed, but standing up to a mob on Twitter or Facebook, despite the fact that you likely won't suffer any physical injury, is almost as scary for people. Certainly the size and openness of social networks plays a role -- would you rather have ten people threatening to throw rocks at you in real life or ten thousand people pummeling you with abusive insults online? Neither sounds like much fun.

But perhaps the most interesting finding is that people who visit Facebook a few times per day or more are half as likely as non-Facebook users or more casual Facebook users to voice an unpopular opinion in public. After all, they watch people get jumped on all day for their opinions on Facebook, and know how hurtful a social media mob can be. And even when it comes to opinions they believe are shared by their peers, Facebook users are still less likely than non-Facebook users to voice these opinions in public. This suggests that moderate-to-heavy social media use not only discourages people from sharing unpopular opinions, but any opinions at all, for fear that you might offend or alienate somebody.

Why has social media affected our offline behavior in this way? Is it because of a desire to be liked that's become out-of-control thanks to the "like-my-post!" culture of Facebook? Is it the ease with which mobs can grow on social media against people who share an unpopular opinion, and a fear that this could happen in real life? Or is it simply that the new generation doesn't talk about much of anything controversial or meaningful in person anymore because they're too busy looking at screens?

It's probably a little of all three. In any case, based on these findings, social media is not the facilitator of free and wondrous discourse many had hoped. Not that it isn't never used like that. But thanks to the Internet, people may be keeping it real less and less, both online and off.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]