the not so silent minority.

How Scotland's Spiral of Silence Unwound

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
Read More.
a | A

For days Scotland's independence referendum seemed too close to call on the basis of opinion polls, but voting results show a comfortable victory for the pro-union campaign -- 55 percent to 45 percent. German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann explained this paradox back in 1974 with a theory she called the Spiral of Silence.

Noell-Neumann started out as a pollster in post-war Germany.The question of why Germans had acquiesced in Hitler's savage policies bothered her, and she eventually answered it by suggesting people had a "quasi-statistical organ" that assessed how the rest of society felt. That often unconscious reading is an input into the answers people give to pollsters. Many are reluctant to go against the perceived majority because of a fear of disapproval or isolation. They prefer to keep silent or conform to the majority opinion.

The silence and insincere approval encourage the perceived majority, and it becomes more vocal, forcing more of its opponents into acquiescence. That creates Noell-Neumann's spiral.

The "quasi-statistical organ's" perception can be skewed by media, Noelle-Neumann noted: "The willingness to speak out depends in part upon sensing that there is support and legitimation from the media." These days, it's not so much TV as social media. It has been argued that the social Web has moderated the spiral because people have a say in selecting the views prevalent in their online environments, but the original theory still works when it comes to contentious elections. In Italy last year, polls failed to show the true strength of comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, and a recent study shows convincingly that that it was the Spiral of Silence, working through the online social platforms that were Grillo's chosen campaigning platform, that confounded pollsters.

The Spiral of Silence means the more radical, more vocal side tends to gain the upper hand in the polls. In Scotland, that was the pro-independence camp. It overwhelmed its opponents on Twitter and on Facebook. The more radical activists even threatened (admittedly mild) violence against those who said "No" to secession. Throwing eggs at houses decorated with "No, Thanks" posters may not have been particularly smart of effective, but the "quasi-statistical organ" must have registered it, too.

The pollsters whose surveys suggested a "Yes" lead or a photo-finish pointed out conscientiously that those results did not take into account the undecided. The media mostly didn't care about academic equivocation and only followed the "Yes" and "No" numbers. The last "poll of polls" on did not even have an "Undecided" line, even though their share remained close to 10 percent up until last week. Besides, a few people must have told pollsters they would vote "Yes" but ended up voting "No" in a secret ballot.

Secession supporters did not give the "spiral of silence" much thought, which is why many of them thought they would have something to celebrate this morning. The actual voting results quickly sent them home drunk and desolate.

In a functioning democracy such as the U.K., the Spiral of Silence works just as it did in Nazi Germany or President Vladimir Putin's Russia. When asked by sociologists what they think, people first do an often subconscious calculation of how most others would answer, and many elect to conform with the calculation's result. In a polling booth, however, no one is looking, and there will be no repercussions, social or otherwise. You can tell your bitter pro-independence friends that you voted as they did, and your triumphant unionist friends that you were with them all along. Hence the comfortable win for the safe, unromantic option in Scotland.

In authoritarian societies, however, leaders know the Spiral only gives them tenuous support. Putin has an approval rating of 84 percent, backed up by an all-out propaganda campaign both in traditional and social media, but what does it actually mean? Despite the polls, the Kremlin still makes sure to dominate every election campaign by brute force, controlling media, disqualifying opposition candidates and making sure to rig elections that, by some miracle, may still not go its way.

A month before the Sept. 14 election to the Moscow city council, pollsters predicted more than 50 percent of the voters would turn out. On polling day, only 20 percent did. That same day in St Petersburg, the gubernatorial election was so heavily rigged that the unpopular pro-Putin governor won a bigger share of the vote that Putin himself had ever done in his native city.

The problem with the Spiral of Silence is that it is unreliable, though it does make for powerful headlines. The U.K.'s common heritage includes an electoral system that adequately expresses, and respects, the people's will. That, in the end, is why the union prevailed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at