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The project

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.

1. Modes of exposure.


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.


2. Learning.


 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.


Balcells, Joan, and Sara Riscado. 2013. “Internet and the costs of deciding in election campaigns”. Presented at the General Conference of the ECPR, Bourdeaux.


Balcells, Joan, and Ana S. Cardenal. 2013. “Internet y competición electoral: el caso de Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya”. Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas 141 (-1): 3-28. doi:10.5477/cis/reis.141.3.


Bartels, Larry M. 2000. “Partisanship and voting behavior, 1952-1996”. American Journal of Political Science 44 (1): 35–50.


Bartels, Larry M. 2002. “Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions”. Political Behavior 24 (2): 117–150.


Borge, Rosa, and Ana S. Cardenal. 2011. “Surfing the Net: A pathway to participation for the politically uninterested?”. Policy & Internet 3 (1): 1-29.


Cantijoch, Marta. 2009. “Reinforcement and mobilization: the influence of the Internet on different types of political participation”. Paper prepared for delivery at the seminar Citizen Politics: Are the New Media Reshaping Political Engagement? Barcelona, 2009.


Cardenal, Ana S. 2013. “Does Political Knowledge Erode Partisanship? The Moderating Role of the Media Envionment in the Cognitive Mobilization Hypothesis”. Presented at the General Conference of the ECPR, Bourdeaux.


González-Bailón, Sandra, Javier Borge-Holthoefer, and Yamir Moreno. 2013. “Broadcasters and Hidden Influentials in Online Protest Diffusion”. American Behavioral Scientist 57 (7): 943–965.


Granovetter, Mark. 1978. “Threshold models of collective behavior”. American Journal of Sociology 83 (6): 1420–1443.


Macy, Michael W. 1991. “Chains of cooperation: Threshold effects in collective action”. American Sociological Review 56 (6): 730–747.


Margetts, Helen, Peter John, Tobias Escher, and Stéphane Reissfelder. 2011. “Social information and political participation on the internet: an experiment”. European Political Science Review 3 (03): 321-344.

Margetts, Helen Z., Peter John, Stephane Reissfelder, and Scott A. Hale. 2012. “Social Influence and Collective Action: An Experiment Investigating the Effects of Visibility and Social Information Moderated by Personality”. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1892805. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1892805.


Margetts, Helen Z., Peter John, Stephane Reissfelder, and Scott A. Hale. 2013. “Leadership without Leaders? Starters and Followers in Online Collective Action”. Political Studies. doi: 10.1111/1467-9248.12075.


Malhotra, Neil, and Alexander G. Kuo. 2008. “Attributing blame: The public’s response to Hurricane Katrina”. The Journal of Politics 70 (01): 120-35.


Mossberger, Karen, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Ramona S. McNeal. 2008. Digital citizenship. MIt Press: Cambridge.


Mutz, Diana C. 2002. “The consequences of cross-cutting networks for political participation”. American Journal of Political Science, 838-55.


Mutz, Diana C., and Paul S. Martin. 2001. “Facilitating communication across lines of political difference: The role of mass media”. American Political Science Review 95 (1): 97-114.


Oliver, Pamela E. 1993. “Formal models of collective action”. Annual Review of Sociology 19: 271–300.


Padró-Solanet, Albert. 2010. “Internet and Votes: The Impact of New ICTs on the 2008 Spanish Parliamentary Elections”. Presentació de la conferència «Internet, Politics, Policy, 16-17.


Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. 1.a ed. Cambridge University Press.


Schelling, Thomas C. 2006. Micromotives and Macrobehavior. W. W. Norton & Company.


Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2008. “Media use and political predispositions: Revisiting the concept of selective exposure”. Political Behavior 30 (3): 341-66.


Sudulich, Laura, Matthew Wall, and Leonardo Baccini. 2013. “Wired voters: Internet Exposure and Campaign Effects on voters’ uncertainty”. British Journal of Political Science, available on CJO2014. doi: 10.1017/S0007123413000513.