In The people’s choice, Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues laid out many of the key issues that disciplines such as communication, political science, and sociology continue to struggle with when modeling the intersection of mass media and social networks (Lazarsfeld et al. 1948). More specifically, they offered two key constructs to explain the interplay of mass-mediated information, social networks, and political attitudes that are still relevant today: opinion leadership and political cross-pressures.
Lazarsfeld and his colleagues saw opinion leaders as nodes in social networks who provided critical connections between mass media and citizens. Opinion leaders, they argued, were citizens “who are most concerned about an issue as well as most articulate about it” (Lazarsfeld et al. 1948, 49). Subsequent research has refined the operationalization and measurement of opinion leaders (e.g., Noelle-Neumann 1985; Weimann 1994). But little has changed about the original interpretation of the construct and of the role that opinion leaders likely play in social networks (Katz 1957). Most importantly, opinion leaders provide a critical link in what Lazarsfeld and his colleagues called the “two-step flow of information”. Specifically, opinion leaders tend to rely less on interpersonal sources for their own information seeking than the average public. Instead, they turn to mass media for new information. And given their position as influentials in the community, they pass along this information to non-opinion leaders who rely less on mass media and more on interpersonal networks.
Subsequent research supported much of Lazarsfeld et al.’s original theorizing in the context of contemporary social structures. Weimann (1994), for instance, found opinion leaders to have higher levels of interest, knowledge, and social recognition than nonleaders. And most recently, Scheufele and Shah (2000) linked opinion leadership directly to life satisfaction, levels of social trust, and engagement in one’s community.
According to Lazarsfeld et al. (1948), the two-step flow of information in social networks is especially effective since interpersonal channels (rather than mass-mediated ones) can counter and circumvent initial resistance to information, based on partisan preferences. More recent research, however, suggests that the likelihood of exposure to attitude-inconsistent information in modern democracies is much higher in news media than in most interpersonal contexts (Mutz & Martin 2001). Regardless of where exposure to attitude-inconsistent information takes place, however, the question remains if the resulting cross-pressures are a desirable outcome.
Lazarsfeld and his colleagues (1948) suggested that exposure to cross pressures resulted in individuals attempting to avoid politics, which in turn delayed citizens’ voting decisions and made them less likely to vote. More recently, Mutz (2002) distinguished two interrelated processes that undermine political engagement among citizens who are exposed to cross pressures. First, individuals who are part of social networks that expose them to frequent discussions with non-like-minded others steer clear of politics in order not to threaten the harmony of their social relationships. Mutz calls this a “social accountability” effect. Second, her study showed that “exposure to those with political views different from one’s own also creates greater ambivalence about political actions, and thus makes it more difficult to take decisive political action” (Mutz 2002, 851). She labels this effect “political ambivalence.”
Scholars like Scheufele et al. (2004), in contrast, have suggested that exposure to attitude inconsistent information in one’s social networks and the resulting cross pressures are an important and normatively desirable part of opinion formation. In particular, they argue that exposure to such information can have important informational and mobilizing benefits. First, frequent exposure to attitude-inconsistent information may lead to greater political knowledge and learning, simply by exposing citizens to information and viewpoints that they were not aware of before. Second, and more importantly, discussions with other citizens who hold different viewpoints can result in network members having to compromise between different viewpoints, motivating them to re-evaluate those issues where conflict occurs. This exposure to discussion disagreement is therefore likely to produce greater cognitive activity or additional information seeking, forcing individuals to learn about alternative perspectives, and reflect more carefully on what they already know (Scheufele et al. 2006). In turn, recent findings suggest, citizens who are exposed to more attitude-inconsistent information tend to have greater argument repertoires (Cappella et al. 2002) and be more participatory in politics overall (Scheufele et al. 2004; 2006).
Most recently, some researchers have suggested that citizens may begin to rely on online forms of communication to supplement or even replace face-to-face interactions in their social networks. In particular, findings by Hardy and Scheufele (2005) showed that mobilizing effects from traditional news media during campaigns were significantly stronger for citizens who participated in online discussions about campaign issues with others than for those who did not. In other words, citizens either used online discussions to help them make sense of information that they had been exposed to in traditional media, or processed information from traditional media more carefully in anticipation of their online discussions with potentially non-like-minded others. Ultimately, the emerging interplay between geographically defined face-to-face networks, online interactions, and traditional mass-mediated information will require a new paradigm for how we think about social-level influences on opinion formation and political participation.
- Cappella, J. N., Price, V., & Nir, L. (2002). Argument repertoire as a reliable and valid measure of opinion quality: Electronic dialogue during campaign 2000. Political Communication, 19(1), 73 – 93.
- Hardy, B. W., & Scheufele, D. A. (2005). Examining differential gains from Internet use: Comparing the moderating role of talk and online interactions. Journal of Communication, 55(1), 71– 84.
- Katz, E. (1957). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on a hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21(1), 61–78.
- Lazarsfeld, P. M., Berelson, B. R., & Gaudet, H. (1948). The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign, 2nd edn. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
- Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(1), 111–126.
- Mutz, D. C., & Martin, P. S. (2001). Facilitating communication across lines of political difference: The role of mass media. American Political Science Review, 95(1), 97–114.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1985). Identifying opinion leaders. Paper presented at the 38th annual convention of the European Society of Market Research (ESOMAR), September, Wiesbaden, Germany.
- Scheufele, D. A., & Shah, D. V. (2000). Personality strength and social capital: The role of dispositional and informational variables in the production of civic participation. Communication Research, 27(2), 107–131.
- Scheufele, D. A., Nisbet, M. C., Brossard, D., & Nisbet, E. C. (2004). Social structure and citizenship: Examining the impacts of social setting, network heterogeneity, and informational variables on political participation. Political Communication, 21(3), 315 –338.
- Scheufele, D. A., Hardy, B. W., Brossard, D., Waismel-Manor, I. S., & Nisbet, E. (2006). Democracy based on difference: Examining the links between structural heterogeneity, heterogeneity of discussion networks, and democratic citizenship. Journal of Communication, 56(4), 728 – 753.
- Weimann, G. (1994). The influentials: People who influence people. New York: SUNY Press.