The wave of social media in recent years has changed how people think, read and “talk.” As in other countries, Japan’s Facebook, Twitter, Mixi, Line and other social media have become primary means of exchange, interaction and discussion. A new American study, though, finds that most people who regularly use social media sites were actually less likely to share their opinions, either online or in person.

In the study of regular social media users in America, researchers from the Pew Research Center noted that most people either expected their online contacts to agree with them or did not feel comfortable expressing an opinion through such media.

In other words, social media were rarely used for starting a political discussion. The survey found people willing to speak up or stay silent depending on several factors: how confident they were in what they know about an issue; the intensity of their opinion on the issue; and their level of interest in that issue.

The majority of people used social media for other purposes than discussing politics or current events. The survey found that 86 percent of people surveyed were “very” or “somewhat” willing to have a conversation about the government’s surveillance program at a public meeting, dinner or at work; however, only 42 percent of those who regularly use Facebook or Twitter were willing to discuss the same issues through those media.

Strangely, despite the distance and safety social media offers, those surveyed were less willing to discuss complex social and political issues in social media than they were in person. Regular social media use was linked to less willingness to engage in discussion of political topics.

And what of the millions of Japanese users of social media? A definitive study has yet to be undertaken, but Japanese culture tendency to value reticence, politeness and nonconfrontation suggests the results here would be much the same.

The American survey noted that social media created a “spiral of silence.” Habitual users of social media assume their friends agree with them, so further discussion is unneeded. On social media sites, they are more likely to shy away from controversy than to engage in it.

A democracy depends on an informed citizenry with open access to information and a willingness to engage in public debate on issues.

Social media’s failure to energize political debate will be no surprise to many people, but it is a disappointment. Perhaps some innovative young person will design a new social media app that solves this conundrum, and helps people use the great advances in technology for public discussion and political participation.

Japan needs just that.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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