Seeking the Silent Majority

*An Imprecise Examination of Social Media Users*

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the parallels between Trump and Nixon, and the knowledge that Roy Cohn (possibly Trump’s most influential mentor) was one of Nixon’s informal advisers makes Trump’s bombastic approach much more understandable. I find Trump’s claim on America’s “silent majority” an interesting feature in his campaign. In November 1969 Nixon called upon the “silent majority” to show their support in one of his most famous speeches. Nixon’s idea of this silent majority built on the 1955 tome “Profiles in Courage”, written by John F. Kennedy (among others). The book spoke of elected representatives that “…may have been representing the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition to the screams of a vocal minority…” At the time of Nixon’s speech the country was still reeling from the violent protests during the Days of Rage in Chicago just a month before. Nixon’s silent majority were looking for calm and familiarity in the face of violent liberal protest.

What Trump doesn’t seem to understand is that America today is a very different electorate than during the Nixon administration nearly fifty years ago. The Obama administration has steadily pushed a more progressive American agenda. The past seven years have seen landmark changes in American public policy as our first Black president has implemented progressive changes in health care (Obamacare), education (student-debt relief), energy (solar energy installations are up), climate (carbon emissions are down), and finance (credit card reforms). Same-sex marriage is the law of the land and Obama’s Justice Department has issued guidance to protect the civil rights of transgender Americans. For a great many American citizens life is significantly better than it was just a few years ago. While America’s laws have become more progressive it’s been difficult to ignore the escalating moral outrage from a far-right fringe of American politics. As alt-right provocateurs incite violent rhetoric are the progressive attitudes of the left being drowned out by the wrath of the right? Has America’s silent majority flipped from Nixon’s conservative middle America to a new, more diverse liberal mainstream?

It is impossible to ignore the impact of social media on political discourse in the US and around the world. In many ways, we are living in a wild-west of sorts, with social media platforms that are struggling to moderate increasingly polarized voices. I personally have friends that have been harassed or doxed, and I must admit this indirect experience has made me less inclined to voice my opinions online. I have to wonder — are those who have experienced online harassment (either directly or indirectly) less likely to share their opinions online? There have been a few articles exploring the reluctance of primary voters to publicly support Hillary Clinton. Does this affect the tone of political debate online?

The fine folks over at Rad Campaign did a study with Lincoln Park Strategies and craigsconnect quantifying the experience of online harassment, and I found it intriguing that 29% of Democrats had experienced online harassment, while only 20% of Republicans had the same. They also did an investigation into the 2016 election, asking if social media is empowering or silencing political expression in the United States. There were some interesting findings on the perceived aggressiveness of Presidential candidate supporters, but little information about the incidence of statements of support for the different Presidential candidates. In addition, the study was fielded in March of 2016, well before the Democratic and Republican primaries. As a result, I decided to do my own little study.

A note about methodology — I scripted and fielded a short with Survey Monkey, targeting 100 social media users. The sample is small, so take the results with an appropriate boulder of salt. I’m a big fan of replication, so I used a subset of the longer survey for a quick poll using Google Consumer Surveys, targeting 500 US internet users. The sample is a bit bigger, so feel free to consider those results with a slightly smaller boulder of salt. I’ve released the full text of the longer survey here if you’d like to replicate (the shorter survey used questions 3d and 6, with a variation of question 5). You’re welcome to snag the respondent-level data here and here if you want to run your own analysis.

Here’s what I found:

In the longer survey about half of those who had experienced harassment also reported that they avoided making statements online due to a fear of harassment, but there was still some overlap in both of those groups with those who made statements of support for their preferred candidates online.

In the shorter survey there was a strong statistical relationship between age and online self-censorship, but no real difference in the incidence of making statements of support for a preferred candidate.

This is where things get interesting — respondents that reported avoiding voicing opinions online due to a fear of harassment were actually more likely to make statements of support for their preferred candidate online, and although Clinton voters were more likely to have a fear of harassment, they weren’t any more or less likely than Trump voters to post statements of support.

I’m the first to admit that these findings don’t definitively support my theory that America’s center-left voices are being intimidated into silence by the aggressive rhetoric of right-wing ideologues. Perhaps these data are evidence of something more subtle at play. Perhaps voters are emulating the behavior of their preferred candidates, with provocative bombast from Trump’s army of angry white voters and carefully considered messaging from Hillary’s quiet coalition of civic-minded citizens. In any case, I’d love to hear from the internet hive mind — what do you think?