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In The People’s Choice, Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues 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.
In subsequent research it has been confirmed that 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 (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 (“social accountability effect”). Second, being exposed to counter-attitudinal political views creates greater ambivalence about political actions (“political ambivalence”). Other scholars 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 because it may lead to greater political knowledge and because discussions with 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 (Scheufele et al. 2006).
Today, ever more citizens rely on online forms of communication to supplement or even replace face-to-face interactions in their social networks. There are still contradicting results as to whether the proliferation of sources on the internet leads to more ‘echo chambers’, i.e., networks of likeminded people, or whether receiving messages from homophilic sources makes audiences more likely to attend to belief-inconsistent information (Messing & Westwood 2012). 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.
- Messing, S. & Westwood, S. J. (2012). Selective exposure in the age of social media: Endorsements trump partisan source affiliation when selecting news Communication Research, doi: 10.1177/0093650212466406.
- Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(1), 111–126.
- 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.