Having recently completed my doctoral work a common question is “what is your thesis actually about again?” Well, here it is.
In my thesis I look at the idea of the opinion leader – an average citizen who happens to care a lot about politics and pays attention to current affairs. In communication theory we assume opinion leaders act as a bridge between the political elite (think politicians and journalists) and the general public who don’t pay very close attention to what is going on politically. What I find is that digitally enabled opinion leaders actually work very hard to use their channels of communication to avoid anyone who is not already politically engaged. Digitally enabled opinion leaders (the one’s I interviewed at least) don’t like to be the bridge.
Let’s take a beat to unpack this.
Who cares if opinion leaders are or are not acting as a bridge?
You do! We know that there is a widening gap between the politically aware and unaware (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). We know people use digital channels of communication to avoid information they dislike or are not interested in (Prior, 2007). And we know that when people are not aware policy making becomes less responsive to citizen’s needs (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996) and people feel disconnected from their political system (OECD, 2011). In other words, democracy stops working (Dahl, 2000).
What makes any of this interesting or relevant now?
We’ve got a bunch of new channels of communication available to us – that’s all of us, elite, opinion leader or average Joe who hears JT and thinks Timberlake but not Trudeau.
More channels means more opportunities for sharing information and opinion. It also sometimes means new approaches to communicating politically (just think about citizen journalism or hashtag campaigns.) When it comes to opinion leaders, we don’t have a grasp on what channels of communication they are using, how or with what impact. I am talking about Facebook and Twitter sure, but even text messaging and email still need to be included.
Note: I base my work in the context of what Chadwick calls the hybrid media system (2013). Basically, Chadwick explains that lots of different political players have access to lots of different (and often overlapping) tools and tactics of communication. Opinion leaders are one kind of political player.
Fine, but why do these new channels impact the role of the opinion leader?
A lot of people have studied how opinion leaders go about informing the general public and it comes down to personal influence (see Katz, 1957 for an initial review). They use social pressure and social support to change the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of their everyday associates. This is normally done via face-to-face interpersonal communication since other options like broadcast are out of the question (a printing press has a rather large price tag).
But, you say, social media is cheap. Email is cheap. You’re right. New technologies throw the whole theory into question because we don’t actually know what opinion leadership looks like once we’ve got new channels.
What we do know is that these channels of communication open the door for accessing wide segments of the population via interpersonal (emails with mom), impersonal (broadcasting) and quasi-personal (mentioning someone on Twitter) communication.
The thing is, we used to assume that opinion leadership works because opinion leaders have a special social tie to the people who they influence. They know them well and interact with them regularly. There are a bunch of social influence theories that help us understand why we are more likely to be influenced by people who are like us and people who we spend a lot of time with – wanting to be a cool kid, for example, is pretty hardwired in our brains.
We also know that the most new information comes from people with whom we have only a weak tie, like the colleague from another city you only see in person during the annual staff retreat or the man who sells you veggies at the market (Grannovetter, 1973). That is because of a social phenomenon called homophily which basically means we surround ourselves by people like us – you know, birds of a feather flock together (McPhersen, Smith-Lovin, Cook, 2001).
So, where do people who are not interested in politics get political information from? Possibly weak ties. What information is likely to change the opinion of someone whose closest friends all think like them? Probably information from weak ties.
I’m lost, don’t you study social media?
Yup. Here it is, social media allow us to access and maintain close personal ties in new ways. Social media also allow us to access new ties and connect with people who have very diverse experiences, opinion and access to information. I wanted to know the impact of those channels (and other digital media) on the role of the opinion leader. When they talk about politics are they still able to be a bridge when they don’t have to rely on face-to-face communication? Is their influence greater because they can reach a lot more weak ties or is it limited because they try to communicate in a way that doesn’t let them capitalize on their social placement (it would be like the cool kid going to a new school and seeing if anyone starts to dress like them).
So, what do digitally enabled opinion leaders do?
Well, they make use of a lot of channels of communication for accessing information. Importantly this consistently includes accessing at least some mainstream media on a daily basis (from following them on Twitter to subscribing to the online version to turning on the radio).
When it comes to sharing information two distinct strategic approaches emerge. Some opinion leaders, who I call enthusiasts surround themselves with others who are equally passionate about politics. They use channels like Twitter and discussion boards to hone their arguments and to get a sense of what people with conflicting opinions think. It is something of an echo chamber of the politically engaged. On the other hand there are champions who act much the same except in situations of heightened political tension like a scandal or an election. Then these champions take it upon themselves to use every channel and tactic of communication they can to try and inform and influence people who are uninformed. They borrow the strategy of communications professionals and political elite to get their message across when they think it matters most.
Both enthusiasts and champions are trying to avoid the social risk of talking about politics with someone who won’t care.
What does this mean?
- Digital channels of communication are enabling a highly strategic opinion leader.
- Personal influence is not necessarily tied to interpersonal communication and so we need to think about the different types of influence these opinion leaders employ.
- Digitally enabled opinion leadership today is contributing to a much wider phenomenon where the vast majority of the public only become informed of political issues at moments of heightened tension (what I’ve been calling a just-in-time informed citizenry).
Communication theory and strategy both need to be responsive to these shifts.
A note on methods.
I am quite the methods geek which means a big part of my doctoral work was figuring out the best way to measure these things. I collected about 411 000 #CDNpoli tweets and created a friendship network of the users. Next, I conducted an online survey among #CDNpoli users. Finally, I did an in depth analysis of the communication practices of 21 opinion leaders from that network and 26 of their associates through interviews and analysis of Twitter and Facebook activities. There are obviously a lot of advantages and disadvantages to this mixed-methods approach so if you want to know more I am happy to chat. I’ve also published two journal articles on my methods and am happy to send you a copy of my thesis if you want to tackle the 336 page PDF.
In case you are interested,
RQ1 What are the modes of access to and dissemination of political messages by digitally enabled opinion leaders?
RQ2 What drives channel choice among digitally enabled opinion leaders when disseminating political information?
This question is broken down into six sub-questions (in my theory chapter I connect each to a specific body of existing research beyond the broader bodies of work noted above):
- RQ2.1 How does the richness/leanness of media channels influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choice?
- RQ2.2 How does the social appropriateness of exchanging political messages (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
- RQ2.3 How does the political climate influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
- RQ2.4 How does one’s sense of community (given a particular channel) influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
- RQ2.5 How does the strength of social ties to their audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
- RQ2.6 How does knowledge about one’s audience influence digitally enabled opinion leaders’ channel choices?
RQ3 What are the impacts of the channel choices made by opinion leaders on their political role?
- Chadwick, A. (2013). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.
- Dahl, R. A. (2000). On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans don’t know about politics and why it matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6), pp. 1360–1380.
- Katz, E. (1957, March). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to date report on an hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 21 (1), 61–78.
- OECD. (2011). Civic engagement and governance (How’s Life?: Measuring Wellbeing). OECD Publishing.