“In the spiral of silence”

Only yesterday I mentioned the name of Miklós Vásárhelyi, one of the victims of János Kádár's witchhunt after the 1956 revolution. Vásárhelyi was Imre Nagy's press secretary, and he was lucky enough to receive only a five-year sentence. Vásárhelyi died a few years ago, not before both he and his two daughters had distinguished themselves. Júlia is a journalist and Mária a sociologist specializing in the media. I'm not really familiar with the work of Júlia, but I'm an admirer of Mária Vásárhelyi. Her writings, in my opinion, are always on target. Besides her scholarly books she publishes regularly in Élet és Irodalom. She is also a frequent guest on political television shows. Yesterday she was the guest of Sándor Friderikusz who wanted to discuss her piece that appeared a couple of weeks ago in ÉS. The title: "A hallgatás spiráljában" or, in English, "In the spiral of silence."

For those of us unfamiliar with sociology and media studies, this title doesn't mean much. However, Vásárhelyi contends, the "spiral of silence" is the most influential theory of communication in the last half a century. This theory was proposed by a German sociologist, Elizabeth Noelle-Naumann (Die Schweigespirale [1980]). I will try to summarize what it is all about. According to Noelle-Naumann, public opinion has an influence not only on the government but also on the public itself. The theory was developed in the wake of  the unexpected results of the German elections of 1965 when until the last moment the two sides, Christian Socialists and Social Democrats, seemed to be running neck to neck. No one could predict who the winner was going to be. Yet in the end of CDU/CSU won with a large margin, nine percent.

So why were the pollsters with their usual questions about voting preferences unable to predict the outcome, even so close to the election?  Noelle-Neumann's earlier research had indicated that there is another critical factor that influences an individual's decision making–to wit, his or her perception of public opinion. In plain language, if the individual considers X or Y party's support to be larger and therefore X or Y more likely to be victorious, this perception may change his own attitude. Elizabeth Noelle-Naumann conducted sociological studies that monthly inquired not only about which party the person would vote for but which party he/she considered to be the likely winner.  While the ordinary opinion polls up to the very end predicted a very close election in 1965, Elizabeth Noelle-Naumann's polls months ahead indicated a shift in the perception of public opinion in favor of CDU/SCU. The theory is that the political camp that seems stronger and bigger attracts new converts. There is a fear of isolation in holding a minority opinion, and therefore the person who believes that he is in the minority opts for silence. The majority opinion becomes more and more the norm; different views seem abnormal, perhaps even deviant.

How does a party manage to change public opinion? By effective, relentless communication. How can a party make its own standard the norm? As we can see, relatively easily. Fidesz has managed since 2002 but especially since the fall of 2006 to communicate its own political philosophy not as an alternative but as the norm. The individual who holds different views starts to believe that he must hide his ideas; he should not even talk about them. Eventually he will succumb to the realization that perhaps he was wrong all along.

According to Vásárhelyi while Fidesz's communication is brilliant,  MSZP/SZDSZ communication is outright disastrous, a view shared by most observers. Vásárhelyi gives some examples when initially the public didn't buy into the views of the opposition, but within a few months Fidesz  managed to change the opinions of the majority of the population. First she outlines some of the mistakes of the government after the elections in the spring of 2006. The first mistake was the weeks of total silence right after the elections. Victory and then silence? What was wrong? Well, today we know what was wrong. The party had to be convinced that an austerity program was unavoidable. But while they were hammering out the outlines of an austerity program they shouldn't have neglected communication. Their silence only spread insecurity. And when at last the government spoke, it was to announce future austerity measures, reinforcing the public's negative feelings. MSZP immediately began to slip in the opinion polls.

This was the  situation before the ill-fated speech at Balatonőszöd became public. Interestingly, the immediate public reaction was not as virulent as it seems in retrospect. Only a minority of the people wanted Gyurcsány to resign. Moreover, the mob attack on the MTV building actually strengthened the position of the prime minister and the government. At the end of 2006 opinion polls indicated that the situation of MSZP was stable while Fidesz, as a result of the disturbances, had lost popularity. Yet the first signs that something was wrong in the "spin cycle" began to surface. While in January 2007 the difference between the two parties was only ten percent (MSZP = 27%, Fidesz = 37%), almost half of the population (49%) thought that Fidesz would win the next elections. (Only 23% thought that MSZP would be the winner.) The handwriting was on the wall according to the spiral of silence theory.

Vásárhelyi gives a few examples of how public perception after a given event changed in Fidesz's favor due to the party's superior communication. Her first example is the disturbances of October 23, 2006. Szonda Ipsos conducted a survey on October 25 according to which almost two-thirds of the people supported the police's putting an end to the months long demonstration (camping?) on Kossuth Square, and 54% approved of the police's handling of the mob.  Only 31% thought that the police acted in a brutal manner.  Fidesz from the beginning launched a campaign depicting the police as acting brutally under the direct supervision of the prime minister himself. Initially they were not successful, especially after it became known that the police were in touch with the leaders of the large demonstration organized by Fidesz nearby. All research conducted at that time showed that the majority disapproved of Fidesz's penchant for street demonstrations.  They also didn't approve of Orbán's 72-hour ultimatum. Moreover, most of them didn't like the idea of a referendum announced by Orbán on October 23. Thus, interestingly the events of the fall of 2006 brought some success to the government while the position of Fidesz suffered a setback. And yet the government and MSZP couldn't take advantage of this situation. On the contrary, in the last year and a half Fidesz has managed to reverse this trend completely.

Vásárhelyi then concentrates on the fate of the referendum. As I said earlier, initially the majority of the people found a referendum on the questions posed by Fidesz meaningless and superfluous.  In fact, between October 2006 and Feburary 2007 those who supported the introduction of co-payment, hospital fee, and tuition increased by ten percent. Although it is unlikely that the government could have won the referendum, perhaps with better communication they could have made it a non-issue. This is what Dzurinda's government managed to achieve in Slovakia when those opposing health care reforms staged a similar referendum. Vásárhelyi acknowledges that there were many serious political mistakes, but the overall performance of the government is not as bad as the current situation would indicate. The government simply couldn't communicate its achievements in spite of the fact that apparently there are no fewer than eighty people entrusted with the task.

Finally, Vásárhelyi talks about the help Fidesz has received from the carefully developed right-wing media empire. The left-liberal media has almost disappeared.

Let me add a few words of my own. Lately I see some improvement in government communication. The party's communication experts are perhaps emboldened by Viktor Orbán's many mistakes of late. This week new opinion polls will come out. We will see whether there is any change one way or the other.