The Spiral of Hate

The Spiral of Silence is a theory from the communications sciences, first articulated by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, useful in understanding the polarization between supporters of the two remaining liberal Democratic Senators running for our party's nomination.

Briefly, the Spiral of Silence theory holds the following:

The phrase "spiral of silence" actually refers to how people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority. The model is based on three premises: 1) people have a "quasi-statistical organ," a sixth-sense if you will, which allows them to know the prevailing public opinion, even without access to polls, 2) people have a fear of isolation and know what behaviors will increase their likelihood of being socially isolated, and 3) people are reticent to express their minority views, primarily out of fear of being isolated.

The closer a person believes the opinion held is similar to the prevailing public opinion, the more they are willing to openly disclose that opinion in public. Then, if public sentiment changes, the person will recognize that the opinion is less in favor and will be less willing to express that opinion publicly. As the perceived distance between public opinion and a person's personal opinion grows, the more unlikely the person is to express their opinion.

What we're seeing presently playing out on blogs, and there arguably more harshly on those few blogs that support Senator Clinton, is a further elaboration of Noelle-Neumann's theory.

I call it the Spiral of Hate. >>>

In terms of the development of public opinion as expressed on Democratic-leaning blogs, the watershed event of the 2008 campaign was the decision by Senator John Edwards to suspend his campaign. By any objective measure, Edwards had won the support of the blogosphere's most active participants; the Daily Kos reader poll taken the night before the Iowa caucuses gave him 49% of the vote.

When Edwards dropped out, the nomination became a zero-sum game between two historic candidates: Barack Obama, a liberal black Senator running a people-powered grassroots campaign, and Hillary Clinton, a liberal female Senator, wife of a former President, anointed heir to the throne by her husband's circle, including most of the Democratic Party establishment.

What happened after Edwards dropped out was simple and probably unavoidable: stoked on by the heightened passions inflamed by these two historic candidacies, blogs and their readers began to self-segregate into opposing camps. The Spiral of Silence kicked in with a vengeance, as it became increasingly likely to suffer a social penalty for voicing support of one candidate where s/he was not popular.

Conversely, commentary that could justly be described as hateful was not comparably sanctioned, as the bounds of acceptable discourse widened to include hate speech from our political enemies. Quite the contrary: as the primary dragged on, vitriolic arguments against the opponent began to receive positive affirmation regardless of source and sheer offensiveness.

Simply put, for many (and especially newly engaged partisans drawn to blogdom by the primary) the defeat of the respective primary opponent moved to the top of the values hierarchy, displacing long-held maxims about acceptable and unacceptable arguments. This is the Spiral of Hate.

Symptoms are, say, diaries sourced to National Review, Free Republic, No Quarter, Little Green Footballs, and other extreme rightwing outlets; commentary that denigrates gender, religion, or race, and the historical burdens they are linked to; talking points about guns, extremist leftwingers, or conversely about neo-conservatism, culled directly from Free Republic, Pat Buchanan and Counterpunch; cult-like devotion to one's candidate (more noticeable to me amongst some particularly deranged Clintonites than elsewhere, truth be told); and more. As they say about pornography, you'll know it when you see it.

This process and its deplorable symptoms will continue to play out until the nomination is settled. Simply put, there are few undecideds left, and the two camps are too much at odds for this spiral to stop. Escalation breeds further escalation, of course.

Notably, while it's incontestably true that the process I'm describing here has adherents in either camp, I'd argue that Senator Clinton's supporters are more to blame for the devolution of discourse to include outright hate. There is, for example, no site more invested in hatred in the entire blogosphere, short of Stormfront, than, a wretched hellhole of despairing hate mainly given over to racist smears of Senator Obama. Take, for example, just this highlight:

Let's discuss politically Dumb White People and their embarrassing ways, Progressive Barack Obama Osama Bin Laden, and flim flam artist and friend to bigots and slumlords - Barack Obama and his latest batch of lies and race baiting.

That's hate speech, pure and simple.

There are structural reasons for the imbalance. To begin with, the Illinois Senator's supporters simply outnumber their opponents; after Edwards dropped out, the Daily Kos reader poll, as good a measure of support as one can find in the Progressive blogosphere, showed his support moving almost wholesale over to Obama, with barely an uptick for Senator Clinton to be registered. This strength in numbers reduces the perceived need to engage in hate speech. It will be interesting to see, now that Senator Obama is experiencing a drop in the national polls in the wake of a less than stellar debate performance, whether his supporters maintain the higher ground.

A further contributing factor is the state of the race. While some continue to believe that Senator Clinton has a chance to win the nomination, this view is not widely held, and contradicted by the respective numbers of pledged delegates, popular vote totals, the fund race, and every other metric one might name. It follows from this that Obama's supporters are acting with a measurably higher amount of restraint, given that they are, presumably, conscious of the need to unite the party. Clintonites seem to be under no such compunction, and small wonder; their hopes for a victory, slim as they are, do not rest on persuasion of voters, merely of party grandees.

It's interesting that what we're seeing playing out among the numerous free agents of the blogosphere also seems to be affecting Clinton's campaign. Up until the people of Iowa voted, cutting short the cherished misapprehension that Clinton was the inevitable nominee, it would have beggared belief had anyone suggested her campaign might run ads accusing an opponent of not being rightwing enough on God and guns, or that she would have trashed, and organization that the eventual nominee is going to rely on to provide money and boots on the ground. Now, while this is surely not hate, her campaign messaging has validated and continues to validate the usage of tropes drawn directly from the most extremist voices on the right. The fact that the right seems to have made a calculated strategic decision to keep her in the race, so as to be able to engage a nominee Obama already damaged by internecine attacks, merely leeches more poison into the veins.

And here we are, with six weeks to go until the final ballots are cast. The Spiral of Hate continues.

Tags: Barack Obama, cult, hate, Hillary Clinton (all tags)




I'm going to a bachelor party, but I find myself wondering, as I head out the door, just how the commentary will validate my theory.

Happy Saturday, y'all.

by MBNYC 2008-04-19 04:49PM | 0 recs
Re: The Spiral of Hate

Sounds great, almost. If it wasn't for your pre-existing pro-Obama slant, and your signature of "growing weary of the lies", this post would almost be authoritative. However, it's not.

But you're right on a few points. There is a ridiculous amount of hate on both sides, but it's a vast minority of people actually out there. As for there's more of this from Senator Clinton's supporters, I'm sure you'd see if that way since you are in fact an Obama supporter. I simply say it's coming from both sides.

The Spiral of Hate, as you call it -- cute! -- is being fed by both sides, and to blame it mostly on Clinton supporters is disingenuous since you purport to lay out a case for a theory, and you start out by saying it comes from both sides, yet end by making a predictable dig at Clinton's supporters.

As to Obama having more supporters, online this is true of course. Clinton's base is definitely not going to be wading through blogs like we do.

by VAAlex 2008-04-19 04:53PM | 0 recs
Not really.

As a former Edwards guy, maybe I see stuff a little bit more clearly than the people who have been in the two remaining camps from the start. And as noted, there are structural reasons why the Clinton people are more over the top than the Obama people.

Case in point: check out the rec list over at the Great Orange Satan, and compare it with what's posted here. The temperature among Team Obama is just lower, in part because it's been enlarged by people like me less inclined to go to the further reaches of opinion in expressing our support. For me, Clinton is an opponent, not an enemy; you can't say the same of the people who frequent, say, Taylor Marsh.

But now I really have to go.

by MBNYC 2008-04-19 05:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Not really.

I'm a former Edwards guy myself. There's absolutely no way you can attribute anything including 'structural reasons' why Clinton people are more over the top. Frankly, it sounds like an attempt to validate an opinion which you already have -- in other words, looking for evidence which you already believe exists.

by VAAlex 2008-04-19 05:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Not really.

Agreed. The theory was interesting until you got to "anointed" and "deranged Clintonites and then, disappointingly it was the same old rants.

by ellend818 2008-04-19 07:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Not really.

Or maybe you caught the whiff of an insult and stopped listening.

Not that I'd much fault you. This is why all the arguing on the blog is pretty much a complete waste of time. As soon as things get a little salty, no one listens any more... and some people have a very loose definition about what they find vaguely insulting.

by X Stryker 2008-04-19 09:19PM | 0 recs
Re: Not really.

But you just proved the point. Instead of responding with an argument of why the diary's theory is right, you go on to say that the commenter was insulted.

So do you have a theory on why the diarist is right?

by VAAlex 2008-04-20 04:43AM | 0 recs
Don't confuse

the fact that this diary says things you do not want to hear with a misapprehension that those things are invalid. They are not. I'm hitting very near the mark here, it seems to me.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 09:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Don't confuse

Which things are those exactly?

by VAAlex 2008-04-20 10:51AM | 0 recs
Well, yes I can.

Clinton's online brigade has clear incentives to go over the top: the fact that they're measurably behind, that their own campaign is using rightwing frames, and that they're vastly outnumbered. You can argue, if you want, that these factors work differently than I describe, but you can't just brush them off, because they're quite real.

Frankly, it sounds like an attempt to validate an opinion which you already have -- in other words, looking for evidence which you already believe exists.

Well, yes. That's standard procedure in the social sciences: you develop a hypothesis based on observation and then empirically test it. Now, doing a real empirical test is beyond the scope of a diary, but the methodology I'm using here is completely sound, standard practice, even.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 09:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Well, yes I can.

1) Clinton's 'online brigade'? Ok, funny way to refer to Clinton's online supporters, but whatever.

2) Their campaign is using rightwing frames? Really? Which rightwing frames are those?

3) Online, of course they're outnumbered. As I've said repeatedly, Hillary's base -- blue collar workers, isn't likely to be debating on a blog.

4) "Standard procedure" would be to develop a theory and test it regardless of your preconceived notions, not validating your own theory. This is called "selective bias".

by VAAlex 2008-04-20 10:53AM | 0 recs
Re: The Spiral of Hate

It's an interesting take.  What it doesn't necessarily account for is that political websites and other groups may also be reshaping what is deemed to be acceptable discourse.  If people take their frustration with the outside world, then enter a site and find like-minded souls there who speak openly and, let's say, "frankly," about those frustrations, then that smaller online society redefines what is normal behavior in the context of that website.  Once the person comes out of that environment, they may have a different perception of what is normal than those who never visited the site in the first place.

by rfahey22 2008-04-19 04:57PM | 0 recs
Interesting read

I'll tip but not rec (see my sig).

Also Ms. Noelle-Neumann theory seems sound.  I was more silent about my prairie populist views when in my conservative high school then at my liberal college.

However in the point of fairness you should also include NewsMax and Dick Morris in you links to nefarious places.

by Student Guy 2008-04-19 04:57PM | 0 recs

you are disregarding the views put out by prominent people like Kos in fueling the other side.  More objectivity would make this a better piece.

by Student Guy 2008-04-19 04:58PM | 0 recs
Re: Also

I would agree with that.  It can be made more generic and still make the point.

by rfahey22 2008-04-19 05:01PM | 0 recs
There are enough

bad actors on both sides that naming them all would be a futile task.

by Student Guy 2008-04-19 05:07PM | 0 recs
Re: There are enough

And where to begin?  People would be using the "s/he did it first" argument until suddenly we were talking about alleged slights that happened during Gore's candidacy, or some such.

by rfahey22 2008-04-19 05:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Also

I'll be honest, I have bias out the wazoo, but it becomes hard to believe the "equally from both sides" argument based on what I see. (I know those aren't your words, but that's the general take on it these days)

I understand that it is difficult to a/ quanitify the volume of fur in the air by color and b/ even tell who is a real-supporter/opposition-candidate-supp orter-troll/opposition-party-troll or, c/ even find a disinterested party to do the math.

Still, the simple fact that the Clinton campaign strategy is publicly known as the Kitchen Sink...

I've had to deal with goaded or over-zealous Obama supporters running off with mouthfulls of vitriol (how did I ever get sucked into that job?), but it just seems to pale in comparison to the hillaryis44, or (lesser now, but still) MyDD FleaFlicker/etc... diaries...

I dunno.  I honestly try to pull my bias filters off, but I know enough to understand that this is an impossible task. I've found Clinton supporters who were "ranting" by my definition but became rational (again, my definition) on further discussion, so I don't in any way cast all Internet-fluent Clinton supporters in this light, but the level of fling from that part of the field has shocked me in a way that bile from my side seems like roses and sunshine in comparison...

by chrisblask 2008-04-19 05:09PM | 0 recs
I am not saying that it is equal

I am saying that the diary doesn't point out the enflamming stuff put up by prominent Obama supporters like Kos and that weakens his argument.  A stronger article would look at both sides as that can remove bias, there is an Obama bias in the article.

by Student Guy 2008-04-19 05:15PM | 0 recs
Once again.

Since you bring up Kos, he asserted that Hillary is no longer a Democrat. Compare that to His44 saying Obama is a terrorist or at least indistinguishable from one.

Now tell me those two things are exactly the same. They're not.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 09:37AM | 0 recs
Not really, no.

You're saying, basically, that there's a moral and linguistic equivalence between Markos saying that Hillary is no longer a Democrat, and hillaryis44 saying that Obama is a terrorist. Or that quoting Counterpunch is the same thing as quoting Free Republic.

The absurdity of the comparison is enough to refute it.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 09:24AM | 0 recs
I am saying that

equivalence exists in the eyes of some supporters of Sen. Clinton.

Both sides are to blame for flaring up the acrimony.   Kos saying that certainly doesn't contribute to a KUMBAYA feeling.  However it is true that that is minor compared to the stuff I've seen at Noquarter and Hillaryis44.

by Student Guy 2008-04-20 04:49PM | 0 recs
And some people believe

that the earth is flat.

I'm not saying that Clinton's backers have no reason to complain. I am saying, however, that they are disproportionately to blame today.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 08:21PM | 0 recs
I will agree with you there


by Student Guy 2008-04-22 10:18AM | 0 recs
Re: The Spiral of Hate

What a one-sided, self-serving theory.

Why mention the citation of "right wing" sources without mentioning the citation of "left wing" sources?  And to imply that Obama supporters are somehow above this?

I came hoping for a thoughtful discussion about the way a desire for new politics and a feeling of hope have been derailed into name calling and anger.  Instead I found a propoganda piece.

by bobbank 2008-04-19 05:29PM | 0 recs
Re: The Spiral of Hate

Well, that's one way to ignore the underlying points.

by ragekage 2008-04-19 06:11PM | 0 recs

...I do mention what you're talking about, even if we assert for argument's sake that "left-wing" and "right-wing" sources are similar offenses in a left-wing party, which the Democrats are.

But basically, you didn't read the diary itself.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 09:26AM | 0 recs
Re: The Spiral of Hate

Nice bait-and-switch play. I went into the diary expecting to see a good faith effort to cool the ridiculously hot rhetoric around here, only to find yet another hit diary. You make a pretense at serious analysis to start off, but by the end of the diary, you sound like a seven year old crying "she started it!!"

As a Clinton supporter, I have tried to concentrate on gently chiding the more moderate Clinton supporters when they get carried away, ignoring the most vitriolic Clinton supporters as beyond help. I rarely jump on an Obama supporter, even when they post a hit piece, because I figure they will not listen to me anyway. But your diary is the most insidious kind of attack - one that purports to be an attempt to cool the fires, while actually fanning the flames. I know you are not ashamed, but you should be.

... cult-like devotion to one's candidate (more noticeable to me amongst some particularly deranged Clintonites than elsewhere, truth be told); and more. As they say about pornography, you'll know it when you see it.

Hey! I think I see some!
Clinton is the "anointed heir to the throne by her husband's circle"
Clinton's supporters are "deranged", and "more to blame for the devolution of discourse"
Clinton's campaign strategy does not rest on persuasion of voters, merely of party grandees, and has become a defacto ally of the right, because of its penchant for "internecine attacks, [which] merely leeches more poison into the veins."

Wow. for someone who claims to decry the continuing spiral of hate, you sure know how to make nice. Please tell me you are not involved in negotiations or conflict resolution of any kind. Because based on what I see in this diary, you would kind of suck at it.

by itsthemedia 2008-04-19 06:07PM | 0 recs

...not really. This diary is diagnostic, not an exercise in conflict resolution. It's all very well and good to assert, without evidence, that hardcore Clinton supporters like fleaflicker are the same thing as their counterparts across the aisle; but my argument is precisely that they are not.

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 09:31AM | 0 recs
Re: Well...

Oh my bad. So your diagnosis is that Clinton supporters are deranged royalist Republicans. If that is the way you talk about us, it is pretty clear to me that you are caught up in that spiral of hate yourself.

by itsthemedia 2008-04-20 11:52AM | 0 recs
What happened?

Deranged royalist republicans? Is that a serious contribution?

by MBNYC 2008-04-20 08:22PM | 0 recs
Re: The Spiral of Hate

Excellent points, dude, kudos.

by ragekage 2008-04-19 06:33PM | 0 recs
Interesting discussion.

I like the topic matter and that you're trying to address it this way.  

First an important criticism of your main thesis.  The Spiral of Silence theory is broad enough to emcompass a large amount of human activity, political and apolitical.  That very broadness makes it less relevant to this discussion, because we're talking about what seems a real aberration here.  

There are presidential primaries every four years.  They're not always this polarized and vehement, not even on the Internet.  Four years ago, it got heated between Dean and Clarkies and Kerry-fanatics.  But this season is very different.  

And for years, I have known it would be.  More on that in a minute.

So rather than starting with the focus on what is common to all human endeavors involving public expression of opinion, what we need to identify is what is different about this cycle that led things to be the way they are here, on the blogosphere, in particular.

I am struck by the way that some people seem to experience such a deep sense of what Freud called transference with their candidate.  Their identity crosses over to the point where the issues of the candidate are THEIR issue, rather than the other way around, the candidate being chosen becaud of the issue.  

There are people like that in all campaigns, and they are some of the hardest people to deal with in the blogosphere.  You try hard to explain why you feel a certain way, but it doesn't matter, because the other person isn't really listening to your reasons.  Their feelings are being hurt because you disagree with their candidate.  They will argue their position back, but they do it from a defensive stance.  It becomes clear that their goal is not to persuade you or to change your mind, but rather to defend to themselves their own belief in their own candidate's rightness and goodness.

There is a LOT of that going on.  In the waning days of Edwards, when it was obvious he was sinking and probably a lost cause, some of us, like me, jumped ship early.  (I'm not applauding myself for that.  Just pointing it out so that I can be honest here; I've been trying to understand the die-hard supporter thing for a while now.)  But even as Edwards chances sank, the fervor of the remaining Edwards supporters was vastly magnified.  They bristled at suggestions their candidate was a lost cause.  They wrote some really absurd, over the top diaries about how all the other candidates were so awful they would leave the country if they were elected.  One that pushed me over the edge was one where a certain diary author said that he and Edwards supporters couldn't abandon Edwards even if he dropped out because they had "waited all their lives for a candidate like Edwards..." and he meant it.  He meant it at that moment.

To me, that's irrational, but I have to be careful saying that, because odds are I have been and am still equally irrational at times.  That makes it interesting as a social phenomenon.  You can't help but learn about experiments like the Milgram Experiment without feeling first a moment of smugness and then a nagging doubt about your own independence and moral judgment in a difficult situation.  So I'm both trying to take this as a learning opportunity for myself.

The Clinton supporters are now in the same position the Edwards supporters are, although with more support from the media.  Edwards was never treated as seriously as Hillary is even now, when her mathematical situation isn't promising.  The Clinton supporter's situation, it seems to me, is aggravated by more than a year of very high expectations for their candidate.  It's almost as if she already WAS the nominee of the party, and thus her losing now would be like being deposed.  Such a situation seems unfair in some way.  

Now, I'd like to throw in a lot of other stuff about the Clintons and how maybe they exacerbate this situation, and the polling, and other things, but I'll deliberately skip that, because I think I'd like to keep this minimallly polarizing.

One last thing.  I said I knew this year would be very hairy and I would explain why.  It's the war.  Hillary herself alluded to that in that HuffPo tape, where she talked about activists that don't like her foreign policy.  There are a lot of us that have been mobilized and filled with anger at the Clintons and a whole lot of other Democratic Party officials for years now, and it has had plenty of time to stew.  Some of us were planning more than a year ago to turn the Denver convention into another 1968 convention through massive protests against Hillary and the war.  There was talk underway.  I fully expected Hillary to get the nomination, and I expected to be there in Denver getting tasered on TV (or Youtube) while she made her acceptance speech.  So, even if Obama had never existed, this year may have been destined to be unexpectedly polarizing and out of the norm for reasons that had little to do with Spirals of Silence but more to do with the 2002 AUMF.

by Dumbo 2008-04-19 07:58PM | 0 recs
I agree with everything you said.

It's no real surprise that Obama has caught and passed Clinton in this race.  That is, once it became apparent that Edwards was not going to hold his own.

There there were a number of polls at the most popular progressive/Democratic blogs back when we had the full slate of candidates.  Edwards and Kucinich polled near the top back then for ideological reasons.  But the telling statistic was that Hillary usually polled about 5th.  That means as the real world intervened and Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson and finally Edwards were forced to leave the race, people would go to their second (or third) choice next.  That second or third choice was overwhelmingly not Clinton.  If you look at Obama's trend line it's apparent that it started to trend up when pollsters started leaving Gore out, and when the others, particularly Edwards, dropped out the trend line got much steeper than before.

In spite of that, since the blogosphere is not the real world (at least it's only a small part of it), if Hillary had run a better campaign she could have salvaged this.  Or if Obama had run a crappy campaign, he could have lost it.  Neither of those happened.

Also want to add that a large number of us who support Obama are supporting him as our second, or even third choice, so we are slightly less wrapped up emotionally in his nomination.  Hillary supporters (at least based on her fairly flat trend line) have been with her for the entire primary...they are heavily invested emotionally.  I do try to be sensitive to that but sometimes it wears me out.

by GFORD 2008-04-19 09:22PM | 0 recs
Re: I agree with everything you said.

I think you are saying that Obama has benefitted by winning the contest to be the anti-Clinton. I agree, although obviously that is not the only factor in his success so far - I'm not sure if it is even the largest.

Maybe I am a bit different from your stereotypical Clinton supporter, because I did not start out in her camp (Dodd). But even so, I can tell you it is frustrating to me to be told I am not a "real" Democrat by people who were probably not alive yet when I joined the party. In this very diary, am called a royalist, a closet Republican, and deranged.

On behalf of all those Clinton supporters who are not yet ready to say it, I thank you for trying to be sensitive. If Obama is the nominee, he will have my vote, and I will hope to be pleasantly surprised by him. I hope you can summon the same suspension of disbelief for a Clinton candidacy if she manages to pull a rabbit out of her hat over the next couple of months.

by itsthemedia 2008-04-20 12:42PM | 0 recs
Kudos to you Dumbo

Your commentary is far more insightful than the diary itself.

> what Freud called transference

Yes. There is plenty of that coming from all sides, I agree.

> odds are I have been and am still equally irrational at times

Proving you're human.

> Edwards was never treated as seriously as Hillary

I have said elsewhere that among the major candidates, only Edwards got worse treatment than Clinton this year. They made a few snide comments about his hair and the price of his home, and then pretty much pretended he didn't exist.

> Now, I'd like to throw in a lot of other stuff about the Clintons and how maybe they exacerbate this situation, and the polling, and other things, but I'll deliberately skip that, because I think I'd like to keep this minimallly polarizing.

Would that the diarist had shown your restraint. His approach was more like: "FU and the horse you rode in on. Now lets discuss why you can't get along with people."

by itsthemedia 2008-04-20 12:27PM | 0 recs


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