As publics are increasingly celebrated as both consumers and co-creators of media, many have questioned how influential traditional media institutions may still be in shaping public opinion and social consensus. Yet for the moment, the trend towards digital distribution of media content is still dominated by traditional news and entertainment producers with digital channels and tools strengthening consumers’ relationship with conventional programming and content rather than eroding it. This suggests that paradigmatic theories such as Cultivation and Spiral of Silence still remain useful and adaptable frameworks for anticipating and studying media effects.

In my Doctoral seminar this semester on Advanced Media Theory, students were asked to compare the two major media theories explaining how social consensus is created and maintained in modern society. Among several strong responses was the following short essay by Faith Jegede, a doctoral student studying immigrant diaspora communities and their use of online media, tools, applications and networks. In her essay, she addresses the durability of Cultivation and Spiral of Silence as applicable theories in the digital age. [See also related essay by Jon Kittle.]

Durable Paradigms? Cultivation and Spiral of Science Research in the Digital Age

Faith Jegede

The grand shift towards a more social, customizable and multiplatform digital public sphere has largely transformed the way in which media is consumed, spread and discussed. This shift has stimulated great scholarly interest, raising questions regarding the applicability, relevance and validity of conventional approaches to media effects research (Schulz & Roessler, 2012). Theories such as Gerbner’s “cultivation theory” and Noelle-Neumann’s “spiral of silence” in particular have contributed to our conceptualizations of the impact of traditional media on audiences. This essay briefly discusses the aforementioned theories, looking at their similarities, differences and challenges within a modern digital context.

One of the strongest commonalities between cultivation theory and spiral of silence is that they both contend the media influences public perception of social reality. The main hypothesis of Gerbner’s cultivation theory proposes that heavy television media consumption ‘contributes to viewers’ conceptions of social reality’ (Gerbner et al, 2002). Gerbner argues that the television medium is not solely concerned with the creation and reflection of images; rather it should be conceptualized ‘as an integral aspect of a dynamic process’ (Gerbner, 1998). The interaction between the medium and its publics involve the formation and flow of messages ‘which create, fit into, exploit and sustain the needs, values, and ideologies of mass publics’ (Gerbner, 1998). Gerbner furthers that such flow of information plays a significant role in the opinion formation, identity construction and maintenance of these publics.  As publics are increasingly considered to be co-producers of digital media, as well as consumers, one wonders how sustainable the influence of media institutions will be in the future, specifically on identity construction.

On the other hand, Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory claims that an individual’s assessment of the climate of opinion determine their level of expression, due to fear of isolation (Schulz & Roessler, 2012). The media in this instance plays the role of providing and controlling the dominant voice of the public. Noelle-Neumann postulates that individuals will be reticent to speak out on an issue if they believe they hold a minority opinion and will consequently choose to conform to the majority position or remain silent, thereby further exaggerating the dominance of the perceived majority position in the public eye. One could argue that this theory suggests individual identity deterioration, as the media conditions publics to think similarly, shaping their perception of social reality.

Although cultivation theory and spiral of silence theory are wildly different, their impact and essence are similar. Both Noelle-Neumann and Gerbner incorporated empirical research, in the form of content analysis and surveys respectively, to support their argument and provide a holistic body of work. This combined the traditional qualitative “European” approach with the heavily quantitative “American” approach. This methodological hybridity may further explain its scope of influence within the communication field and across other disciplines.

As illustrated by Shanahan & Scheufele (2013), both cultivation theory and spiral of silence theory are concerned with the media’s ability to conduct social control on its public. They argue that both theories view ‘mass media as playing a critical role (function) in the maintenance of social order’, conceptualizing media both as technology and as an institution (Shanahan & Scheufele, 2013). The institutional focus is the reason as to why these approaches are considered to be macro-social. For cultivation theory, the institutional aspect of television is highly significant as demonstrated in Gerbner’s ‘message system analyses’. This methodological approach examines how the selection, production and distribution of media messages impacts ‘patterns of demography, action structures, relationships’ and its intertwining within a particular culture (Shanahan, 1999).

Noelle-Neumann contends that the media possesses an important agenda-setting function, as it is able to determine the climate of opinion, dictating and enforcing social conventions, customs and norms (Noelle-Neumann, 1991). She deepens her argument by suggesting that the media’s influence is powerfully inescapable, proving fundamental during the process of opinion formation.  As Shanahan & Scheufele (2013) highlight, both Gerbner and Noelle-Neumann indicate that frequent, repeated messaging has powerful media effects that demonstrate correlation between symbolic reality and social reality.

The question remains as to whether the diversification and fragmentation of media outlets within the digital age, dampens the mass effects of the media. Schulz & Roessler (2012) argue that although the Internet has transformed the media landscape, it has not entirely replaced traditional forms of media; therefore approaches such as the spiral of silence are still valid. In relation to the Noelle-Neumann’s theory, Schulz & Roessler (2012) argue that in order for public opinion organically formed online to have offline effects, an amplification of traditional media is still needed to produce mass impact. Therefore, there is still a level of social control as to what is visible or heard.

Some aspects of Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory are less convincing within an online environment. The evidence of “trolls” show that user anonymity on online platforms may give rise to experimentation in antagonizing social norms amongst individuals.

One potential extension of Noelle-Neumann’s “fear of isolation” notion on social media platforms may be the colloquially known, “fear of missing out”. Perhaps humanity’s desire to belong has been replaced with the desire to engage, tending towards the similar social media engagement, consumption and expression habits in the hope of “fitting in.”

SEE ALSO: Cultivation and Spiral of Silence: Media Theories Explaining the Mainstreaming of Societal Viewpoints.


Gerbner, G. (1998) ‘Cultivation Analysis: An Overview’ Mass Communication & Society (pp 175-194)

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., Signorielli, N.,  and Shanahan, J. (2002). ‘Growing Up with Television: Cultivation Process’  In Bryant, J & Zillman, D. (Ed.). Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (pp 43-67) New Jersey: LEA

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). ‘The theory of public opinion: The concept of the spiral of silence.’ In J. A. Anderson (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 14 (pp. 256–287). Newbury Park: Sage.

Schulz, A. & Roessler, P. (2012) ‘The Spiral of Silence and the Internet: Selection f Online Content and the Perception of the Public Opinion Climate in Computer-Mediated Communication Environments’ International Journal of Public Opinion Research

Shanahan, J. & Scheufele (2013). Cultivation and the Spiral of Silence: Theoretical and Empirical Intersections. In Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorelli N. (Eds.) Living with Television Now: Advances in Cultivation Theory & Research. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.