Are Bloggers The People (And Does That Matter)?
Last week David D. Perlmutter, a professor in the KU School of Journalism & Mass Communications, and author of Blogwars, took a look at whether book authors should blog. This week he investigates the influence of bloggers on “the people.” Be on the lookout for Blogwars which examines the rapidly burgeoning phenomenon of blogs and questions the degree to which blog influence–or fail to influence–American political life. Read Perlmutter’s other OUPblog posts here.
In Blogwars I compile much survey data that shows that people who blog about politics, as well as the readers and commenters—interactors—of political blogs, are not “the people.” That is, they are not a true cross-section of America: They tend to be male, white, upper income, higher education. But even if blogs are not vox populi, it does not follow that, as blog critics love to taunt, bloggers are the tinfoil-hatters of American political life. To the contrary, while bloggers may not be the people, there is growing evidence that they have an extraordinary and extra-proportional effect on the people, and on politics, campaigns and elections, public affairs, policy-making, press agendas and coverage, and public opinion. Vocal minorities, we should recall, have in political history changed the world and affected the fate of millions far out of proportion to their size as a group. In revolutions, sheer numbers do not guarantee success or failure. A few thousand Bolsheviks were able to seize Russia in 1917, whereas millions of protesters could not move the Chinese government in 1989. In the case of the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan in 2005, only a few hundred demonstrators actually took over the government building and sent the president packing, partially instigated by local bloggers!
In democracies, too, a few politically effective people can make a mighty impact. Obviously, political leaders can change our world by building wide support or by making fateful decisions. But almost a century of communication research suggests that the kind of people who blog could very well be players in politics, either as part of campaigns or in opposition to them. Communications researchers, starting in the 1950s, described a “two-step flow” of persuasion. The goal of persuasion campaigns, from “I like Ike” to “Drink a glass of orange juice with breakfast,” was not to persuade everyone directly but to persuade local opinion leaders within a community who would then persuade those who respected their opinion or followed their leadership on political matters.
The modern term for such folks is influentials, people who probably have some influence, positive or negative, on the decision-making of larger groups: pastors, politicians, journalists, even professors. They were described by Ed Keller and John Berry as “canaries in the mineshaft for looming political ideas….If word of mouth is like a radio signal broadcast over the country, influentials are the strategically placed transmitters that amplify the signal, multiplying the number of people who hear it.”
According to one study, “Americans who are politically active via the Internet are almost seven times more likely than the average American to serve as opinion leaders among friends, relatives and colleagues.” The Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, in a study published in February 2004, profiled what it called “Online Political Citizens (OPCs)”: These turned out to be disproportionately male, higher income, and higher education than the average American. One later study of bloggers reported that 70 percent fit the enticing category of “influential.” A 2005 profile found that “Weblog users tend to be young, highly educated men with high incomes [with] moderate to high levels of trust in government, high self-efficacy, and high interest in political and general news.” The Blogads network reported that more than 70 percent of political bloggers had contributed to a political campaign within the past six months, and more than 77 percent had a college degree. In 2007, a study of blogging in various countries found that blogs were read by “influencers” at a much higher rate than the general population. In Japan, for example, 91 percent of the public-opinion persuaders read blogs; the figure for the United States, a much more heterogeneous nation, sat at 34 percent.
Bloggers are particularly attractive as being categorized as influentials because they seemingly have a built-in constituency. Political scientist Austin Ranney noted, “The people who regularly vote in presidential primaries are more interested in politics in general. Also, they are people with better formed and more elaborate political philosophies.” That describes the people who blog. As one political blogger put it to me, “I have 3,000 people who listen to what I say and, judging from posted comments, many of them pretty much agree with me.” But does readership bestow power? Yes, one quality they all possess is the potential for political power.
Bloggers, then—despite their small numbers—are so assiduously courted by politicians because they matter.