What role does politics play in our digital lives? New research suggests that, for many Australians, politics and social media are best kept separate.

If you’ve ever hesitated before voicing your political beliefs online, you might be glad to learn that you’re not the only one. According to his year’s Digital News Report, released by the News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra, Australians are less willing to discuss politics on social media than members of most other countries.

Just how widespread is this? Apparently, 41 per cent of participants said they’d have to think carefully before they expressed their political opinions online, while 45 per cent say they’re usually concerned with how such posts would affect their friends and family’s perception of them.

Groups that users were concerned would view them unfavourably because of their political views.

There could be a number of reasons for this. For one thing, Australians might be more inclined to keep their politics private, for the same reasons that we usually steer clear of discussing religion and personal finances. It’s also not unusual for people to want to preserve the fun of social media by avoiding hot button issues which are likely to cause disagreement and debate.

But it’s very likely there are other factors at play. We’ve written before about how social media subtly encourages us to self-censor. With the lines between our online and offline lives no longer so clear-cut, people have come to realise that what we do online can bleed into the real world – and they learn to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

As a result, we’ve become more adept at curating social media profiles that are less offensive, and more palatable to an audience which includes not just friends but employers.

After all, it’s a well-known fact that employers will often scour social media for clues into an applicant’s personality. If, as the report tells us, 60 per cent of Australians occupy the political centre, fringe political opinions – like socialist leanings – all of a sudden become a liability.

Breakdown of Australians’ political leanings (%).

Indeed, the researchers found that left-leaning media consumers were more reluctant to discuss their politics online than those on the right, out of a fear that it could draw suspicion from colleagues, acquaintances and even authorities.

This unwillingness to voice what are believed to be minority opinions in public is known as ‘the spiral of silence,’ and it was documented well before the advent of social media. Coined by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Nuemann in 1975, the theory suggests that fear of ostracisation is an important motivator in our social interactions.

Despite Facebook’s stated goal of facilitating unfettered communication, it turns out that social media users are by no means immune to this fear.

The report also suggests that Australians might be more polarized in their political leanings than other countries, with 40 per cent of participants identifying strongly with right or left-wing ideology, slightly higher than the global average. This should come as no surprise to anyone who was invested in last year’s gay marriage plebiscite, which seemed to bring Australia’s ideological divides to the forefront of cultural life.

For those who’ve become reluctant to share their political beliefs in public, private messaging apps may represent somewhat of a safe haven. In the past year, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have seen an uptick in people using the apps to access and share news, and those who are concerned about their digital reputations are twice as likely to use these apps than those who aren’t.

For readers who don’t shy away from getting just a little bit political, let us know what you think on our Instagram page. Have you ever second-guessed yourself before bringing up Trump or Turnbull on Facebook? Or kept quiet about some issue because of what your relatives might think? Maybe these findings don’t reflect you or your social circle at all. Have your say here.

All images are from the Digital News Report: Australia 2018.