[Marxism] Spiral of Silence (On "Public Opinion" Polling in Putin's Russia)

Thomas Campbell avvakum at gmail.com
Sun Apr 5 02:46:41 MDT 2015


Greg Yudin
April 3, 2015

Let me tell you a story about opinion polls.

The so-called spiral of silence has often been recalled recently in Russia
in connection with public opinion polls. The idea behind the spiral of
silence is simple. As soon as an opinion is conveyed either in the media or
those selfsame surveys as having support from the majority, the minority,
out of fear, prefers either to keep silent or join the majority. The idea
has been used to explain where unanimous opinions, 86% ratings, total
approval, etc., come from. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the “godmother” of
public opinion polling in post-war Germany, coined the term “spiral of
silence” in 1980. And so in Russia, it is usually argued that the spiral of
silence is an inherent feature of public opinion, because it was discovered
in Germany, a proper bourgeois country.

We know that Noelle-Neumann was a Nazi. She did not join the party per se,
but she did head a branch of a party student organization, made a
considerable stir in the US by actively promoting Nazism, and later worked
for two years at Goebbels’s weekly newspaper Das Reich.

But that is not so important. Many people suffered from Nazi fever,
including social scientists. What is more interesting is that while many of
those people somehow reflected on their Nazi experiences, trying in
different ways to explain what had led them to do the things they did,
Noelle-Neumann went into total denial. All her life, she maintained that
she had done nothing extraordinary, that Hitler was a charming man, and
that she had just been forced to denounce Jews, and in fact she had
secretly opposed the regime. It is easy to see how she opposed it if you
take a gander at the articles she wrote for Das Reich. It is as if a
columnist for the current incarnation of Izvestia would say that he had
secretly been fighting for peace and harmony in Russia.

Subsequently, the spiral of silence theory was repeatedly tested, and it
turned out that it works poorly in multipolar societies. If it explains
anything at all, however, it explains the personal experience of
Noelle-Neumann herself. It is her own fear that she identifies with the
intimidated majority. She tries to justify this fear by arguing that the
spiral of silence is something ordinary and inevitable. But this is a bad
excuse, because in order to save her conscience, she justifies political
repression, not only past repression, but future repression. It is one
thing to recognize that no normal person is immune from becoming a beast,
and quite another thing to say it is a normal thing when people turn into

In fact, as far back as her 1940 dissertation (which simultaneously
functioned as a report to Goebbels’s office on American attitudes to
Germany), she writes directly about the difference between the US and the
Third Reich.

“In Germany, public opinion figures like the body of the people, which
receives orders from the head and ensures their implementation. […] In one
case, public opinion holds sway. In others, it is guided.”

All this came to mind after the stunning lecture last week by my colleague
Grigory Kertman from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). Kertman spoke
about the fear of respondents during interviews. It cannot be measured
directly. You cannot ask respondents, “Are you afraid of me right now?” But
Kertman cleverly got around this by collecting information from the
interviewers who conduct the polls. He discovered that they are used to the
fact that respondents are afraid: this is the most common cause of
insincere responses. A significant part of the interview takes place in
circumstances where the respondent’s fear is so strong that it is palpable
to the interviewers.

This silence of the lambs is abnormal, and it has nothing to do with the
“nature of public opinion.” The insatiable desire to pass human beings off
as naturally cowardly creatures and justify those who systematically bully
them always comes from those who themselves have been victims of violence.
Nothing good will come of it. We definitely do not want to go where this
spiral would lead us.

source: Facebook

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at The Higher School of
Economics in Moscow.

See my previous posts on Russia’s pollocracy:

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