The influence of new media in (public) opinion formation
This project aims to study the influence of new media in (public) opinion formation. Digital technologies are contributing to transform political communication and mediation processes. By allowing citizens to access information directly and to share information with their peers, digital techologies are reducing the influence of political parties and mass mediaas traditional agents of intermediation and transforming processes of political mediation. This fact weakens some of the foundations of the classical literature on public opinion concerning the origins of public opinion formation and invites to ask questions about the role of digital technologies in public opinion formation.
There are also empirical reasons to adress this question: the findings of several studies suggest that the Internet might be weakening the influence of gatekeepers (political parties and traditional media) in opinion formation.
For example, some studies find that Internet use is associated with higher electoral uncertainty (Sudulich, Wall, y Baccini 2013), with a vote for minority grups (Balcells y Cardenal 2013), and with abstention (Padró-Solanet 2010). Other studies find a strong association between Internet use and attitudes of dissent and protest. Despite the interest of these findings, the question about the causal link between Internet use and political attitudes and opinions remains open.
This project addresses the problem of causal identification by placing attention on several mechanisms, which may operate in the relationship between the new media and opinion formation. The project explores three mechanisms that may account for the influence of digital media on opinion formation. These mechanisms are related to: 1. modes of exposure, 2. learning, 3. social influence.
We know that modes of exposure to political information have an effect on opinion. For instance, we know that selective exposure tends to reinforce political predispositions whereas cross-cutting exposure tends to increase ambivalence (Mutz 2002). In turn, reinforcement may lead to polarization whereas ambivalence may lead to moderate opinion. Since modes of exposure are expected to have an influence on opinion, the question is: What is the dominat mode of exposure in the Net? There is a lively debate in the literature concerning the dominant mode of exposure in new media. Some scholars argue that given that the new media increases choice we should expect more selective exposure (Prior 2007; Mutz y Martin 2001; Stroud 2008); others contend that given the diversity of information circulating in the Net and its viral structure we should expect more cross-cutting exposure (Balcells y Riscado 2013; Cantijoch 2009; Mossberger, Tolbert, y McNeal 2008; Padró-Solanet 2010; Sudulich, Wall, y Baccini 2013). Despite the controversy, very few scholars have made a serious attempt to test these hypotheses.
The second mechanism is related tohowindividuals learnin different media environments. We know that party identification is oneof the most widely used devices by citizens toform opinions on political issues. Party identification acts as a lens that powerfully shapes individuals’ perceptions over policy issues; identification witha partyaffectsour assessment of leaders, issues and policies(Bartels 2000;2002).However, some studies show that when individualshave at their disposal morerichinformationthey make use ofthis information rather than rely on party bias (Malhotra y Kuo 2008).Certain features of new media lead to think that individuals couldbe learningby doing lessuse of part is an biasand more use of substantive information.On the one hand,the fact thataccessto informationon the Net is notcontrolledby gatekeepers ortraditional intermediaries is likely to make selective exposureless efficient, forcing the individual touse, at least some of the time,his/her own judgment toidentify political information (Cardenal 2013).Furthermore, the viral natureandhyperlinkstructureof the Net increasesthepossibility ofaccidentallearning(Borge y Cardenal 2011). These characteristics of the new media may influence how individuals search and process information, and could reduce the role of partisanship in opinion formation.
3. Social influence
The third mechanism relates to therole of socialinfluencein opinion formation. One factorthroughwhichsocial mediamay affect opinion isby making visiblethe behavior (and opinion) of others(Margettset al.2011;2012;2013). This visibilityis at the heart of information diffusion processes, whichaffect not onlycollective actionbut alsoopinion The premise ofdiffusion modelsbased on socialinfluence isthat individual decisionsare contingentordependent on the decisionsof others,which createpathways of influencethroughwhichbehaviorand opinionsdisseminate(Gonzalez-Bailón2013).Since individualsdo notmake their decisionssimultaneouslybutsequentially, from this perspective, the formation of opinioncan be seenmore as a processofcontagionthan as the result of an individuallearning process.Thus,different individualswill joinan opinionat different points in timedepending on theircritical thresholds, i.e., the number of individualsthey needto join thenew opinion. There are severaltheoretical models thathelp us understandthese dynamicsof diffusion and to identifythem empirically(Schelling2006;Granovetter1978;Macy1991;Oliver1993).However, testingcontagioneffects empirically is far from an easy task. Digital technologiesallow us, for the first time, to examine the effectof social influenceinshaping opinionand to describe howstatementsof opinionare configuredthrough theseprocessesof contagion.
To examine the role of these three mechanisms in the relationship between digital media and opinion formation, this project relies on experimental design and social network analysis. The use of experimental design has several advantages. First, it allowsto adress the problem of causal identification that pervades most studies in this fieldgiven that most of them are based on observation data. Second, it forces to think through the relationship between digital media and opinion formation in order to formulate clear and testable hypothesis of a causal nature. Third, it allows to disentangle the role that these mechanisms play in the relation between digital media and opinion formation.
This project expects to make a contribution to existing knowledge in several ways. First, it expects to fill a gap in the literature on new media by advancing understanding on the mechanisms that operate in the relationship between new media and opinion formation. Second, it expects to clarify how digital technologies are changing patterns of political communication and transforming processes of political mediation. Third, it expects to make a contribution to the literature on public opinion by revisiting some of the assumptions in this literature concerning public opinion formation.
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