The internet’s role as ombudsman, or simply watchdog, has been important in the U.S.—identifying everything from murder charges to political incompetence. The rise of political blogging has been influential and important over the past decade, especially as traditional forms of journalism decline. We’re a country that prides ourselves on citizen involvement in the political process, yet the internet has been overestimated in its ability to spur or create political discourse.
Sure, blogs are more accessible and diversified in voice, but this still doesn’t explain why they have political influence, if they have any at all. Though some blogs have garnered a strong base, the number of subscribers of even the biggest sites looks inconsequential when compared to the reach of traditional media, like newspapers, radio, or television. Blogs also have little central organization and their legitimacy and factual reliability are often called into question by skeptical readers.
Yet, against these shortcomings, blogs do carry political clout. There are two factors at work here, as identified by Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner. First, there is an unequal distribution of blog readers. Web traffic is skewed across blogs, and only a handful of sites have garnered a strong subscriber base. Among political blogs, Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, Daily Kos, and Talking Points Memo are just a few among several dozen important political voices on the web.
Second, web publishing offers unrivaled speed for both news and feedback, and it’s become easy for political elites and journalists to stay up to date, especially when only a few blogs matter. As a result, readership is strong among key individuals in both the government and media. Blogs may only influence a few people when compared to other media, but they’re speaking to some of the country’s most politically prominent people.
“Blogs are important less because of their direct effects on politics than their indirect ones,” Farrell and Drezner write. “They influence important actors within mainstream media who in turn frame issues for a wider public.”
In many ways, the web can affect what stories journalists cover and what policies representatives pursue. The skewed popularity of blogs means that critics treat the internet as free, open space when in fact it operates similarly to traditional media. It’s less an ocean of varying opinions and more of a platform for established voices. (Anyone who’s ever opened a Blogger account and been frustrated that the only commenter is their mother knows what I mean.)
Another myth about the web is that blogs encourage cross-ideological discussion. Through reading web content as a discourse of opposing viewpoints, one could theoretically learn and understand opinions divergent to one’s own. But that’s not the reality. At a lecture, I heard Democratic political strategist James Carville say, “People use the internet the same way a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.”
American political bloggers are usually quick to identify themselves as conservative or liberal. In a quantitative and qualitative study, Estzer Hargittai, James Gallo, and Matthew Kane measured the frequency that bloggers would agree with writers who didn’t share their general ideology. What they found is that “there is much more linking to those who share a blogger’s ideological stance.” Further study by Cass R. Sunstein discussed the blogosphere in terms of Habermastic social theory, as a communicative space where all participants “seek the truth.” In fact, blogs further polarize discussion, encouraging reader to subscribe and follow blogs that match their own preexisting ideologies.
For the web savvy, these trends are likely something you’ve at least observed already. But perhaps the greater issue is the conflation of technology and democratic values. Is the web inherently democratic? Given the evidence, I’d say no. The sooner we can separate technology from its political values, the sooner we’ll understand its actual influence. And maybe then, the internet will finally become a space for productive political discourse.