Cross-ideological conversations among bloggers

by Eszter Hargittai on May 25, 2005

This weekend I’ll be at the annual meetings of the International Communication Association meetings in New York. All of the members from my research group will be participating in the conference and we’ll be reporting on several of our projects. Sunday midday we will present a poster summarizing some preliminary findings from our project on cross-ideological conversations among bloggers. I thought I would give a little preview here.

Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com talks about the potential for IT to fragment citizens’ political discussions into isolated conversations. Borrowing from Negroponte, he discusses the potential for people to construct a “Daily Me” of news readings that excludes opposing perspectives. Sunstein argues that for democracy to flourish, it is important that people continue to have conversations with those in disagreement with their positions. However, he is concerned that with the help of filtering out unwanted content people will fragment into enclaves and won’t be exposed to opinions that challenge their positions. The book is an interesting read, but it does not offer any systematic empirical evidence of the claims.

I have been working on a project this past year with Jason Gallo and Sean Zehnder on empirically testing Sunstein’s thesis. We are doing so by analyzing cross-linkages among liberal and political blogs. You may recall that about two months ago Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance came out with a report on “The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election”. My first reaction was one of panic. Here we had been working on our project for months and someone else came out with the results first. However, a closer read made me realize that our project has some unique elements. And if nothing else, seeing that project has made us more careful and critical in our work showing that more research in an area can be fruitful, because hopefully it inspires the agenda to move forward in a productive manner.

[I updated this image on June 1 when I realized the right graph wasn’t displaying exactly what I had described it as.]

Our work has focused on addressing two questions. First, we are interested in seeing the extent to which liberal and conservative bloggers interlink. Second, we want to see what kind of changes we may be able to observe over time. Sunstein’s thesis suggests that we would see very little if any cross-linking among liberal and conservative blogs and the cross-linking would diminish over time. We go about answering these questions using multiple methodologies. We counted links and calculated some measures to see how insular the conversations are within groups of blogs. We also did a content analysis of some of the posts in our sample. We continue to work on this project so these are just preliminary findings.

At this first stage, we report on findings from three week’s worth of posts on 41 blogs (20 conservative, 21 liberal). We classified the blogs ourselves for political affiliation based on their content. We sampled a week of posts from June 2004, October 2004 (the week before the elections) and March 2005. It may not sound like much, but these 41 blogs posted over 5000 entries during these three weeks (5214 to be precise) including over 900 links to each other (excluding links on blogrolls).

We look at blogroll links and links in posts separately. The graph on the left [click for larger version] is a network map of the blogroll links across these blogs. It is certainly the case that liberal blogs (blue) are more likely to link to other liberal blogs and the same is true for conservative blogs (red) as they are more likely to link to other conservatives. However, there is also interlinking on the blogrolls.

The graph on the right [click for larger version] is a representation of links in posts to other posts on the blogs in our sample (during a week in March). Again, there is more linking within the groups, but there is also linking across liberal and conservative blogs.

We analyzed the linking structure for each of the three weeks to see how the insularity of the conversations changed over time. This image shows a segment of our conference poster with the relevant figures. Certainly both conservative and liberal bloggers are more likely to link to those who share their political orientation. A figure closer to -1 suggests more insularity. There is no clear trend toward becoming more isolated in conversations over time, however. (We are in the midst of coding data for additional weeks to allow for more detailed analyses of the trends.)

Of course, it is possible that all interlinking across liberal and conservative blogs happens in a manner that is void of substance. To address this point, we undertook a content analysis of a subsample of the posts in our study (140 for now to be exact). We found that about half of the links represent what we classify as strawman arguments. The liberal bloggers in our sample are more likely to engage in such cross-linking than the conservative bloggers. However, we also found some evidence of substantive cross-linking. In these cases bloggers may either agree or disagree with the other person, but they do address the content of the other blogger’s post. Also, we did not find that bloggers address the substance of those who resemble their point-of-view very often either. (We present specific figures on the conference poster.)

Overall, it would be incorrect to conclude that liberal bloggers are ignoring conservative bloggers or vice versa. Certainly, liberal bloggers are more likely to address liberal bloggers and conservative bloggers are more likely to link to conservative bloggers. But people from both groups are certainly reading across the ideological divide to some extent.

Much remains to be done and we continue to work on the project. We are expanding our sample to a much larger set (120) that will also include blogs that fall into an “other” category on the political scale. We have been working on a spider to automate some of the process. If you can come by the conference poster session, Sean will have his laptop on hand to showcase the program. We are also coding more weekly segments, as mentioned above. Longer term, there are all sorts of additional ways in which the project can be expanded.

There are numerous methodological issues to consider with this type of a project. I don’t want this post to get unwieldy so I have not gone into details. Please do not assume that just because I did not mention something here we did not consider it. Chances are we did consider it and addressed it in some manner. Of course, we may have missed some issues and certainly welcome feedback.

I would like to thank my great undergraduate research assistant Matt Kane for his assistance with this project. Also, the great visualizations are thanks to Valdis KrebsInFlow software. Thanks to NICO for its support as well.

{ 29 comments }

1

David T. Beito 05.25.05 at 3:46 pm

The blog world is not neatly divided between conservatives and liberals. What about libertarian blogs? Many of them completely defy this dichotomy and, for example, are stridently anti-Bush on the both the Iraq and drug wars.

2

DGF 05.25.05 at 3:57 pm

I’m probably missing something obvious, but what is the difference between “All links” and “>1 links”?

3

des von bladet 05.25.05 at 3:57 pm

Maybe the methodological problems are too hard, but wasn’t the diversity of old media outlets an issue also? Fox news voters and NYTimes readers already surely saw considerably other than eye-to-eye.

Although if it comes to that, newspaper choice in the UK has been stratified along class (and correlatedly) political lines since forever, without the geographical separation that I conjecture at random has played an important part in the peculiarly American breakdown of the agora.

And while from my Old Europe eyrie it will never be other that wretched to observe that in FDRUSAian “liberal” means “social democratic” and “conservative” means “warmongering theocrat”, David T Beito deserves credit for reminding me that nothing is more eye-rollingly nihilism-inducing than that Libertoonianism is taken seriously as a political ideology in your once-great nation (even if it is only on the Interweb).

4

asg 05.25.05 at 4:05 pm

Yeah, yeah, that whole limited government thing is just laughable, innit? Old Europe’s always done so well with the opposite.

Ezster, I’m fairly (but not completely) sure that “Dean Esmay”, not “Deanes May”, is the name of one of the blogs on your list.

5

Eszter 05.25.05 at 5:17 pm

ASG – Thanks, you’re probably right. I’ve changed it to Dean’s World since that’s the name of the blog and that’s what I should’ve indicated on the graph anyway.

David – You’re absolutely right, which is why our expanded sample – as I mentioned in the post – will include additional blogs. But for this initial study we wanted to focus on blogs that are fairly clearly on one side or the other (and some people may disagree with our classifications, please feel free to speak up) so we could control for those complications a bit.

DGF – It’s not obvious, I just didn’t want to make the post too long with lots of methodological details. I’m happy to explain now that I know people notice and are curious.:) “All links” refers to all links. “>1 links” only looks at the connections that included more than one reference to another blog. So if blog A linked to blog B twice then they were included in that analysis. It’s basically a look at links that are more intense, so to speak, or connections between blogs that are more active. I hope that helps in understanding the figures.

6

jonathan 05.25.05 at 5:36 pm

I find this research very interesting, because it maps the blog-world to a certain extent.Organizing chaos. But what kind of conclusions can be drawn from this? Does it say something about society at all?

7

MNPundit 05.25.05 at 6:16 pm

What do you mean by
“We found that about half of the links represent what we classify as strawman arguments. “

I mean I know what a strawman arguement IS but I’m not sure I understand your discription of it in this particular instant.

8

Duncan 05.25.05 at 6:18 pm

All very interesting. Have you looked at all at the click-through rates of these links, particularly in comparison to links to blogs with similar politics? I know that in my own reading of blogs, I often take these links “on trust” as it were, relying on the blog to provide an accurate summation of the opposing argument rather than a selective and easily dismissed one. Generally speaking, it’s only when I go through to the other site that I actually properly engage with their argument. Obviously, this shifts the focus of the study from the bloggers to the blog audiences, but I’d have thought it might be a useful contribution anyway

9

Simstim 05.25.05 at 7:19 pm

mnpundit: was that an allusion to the mighty Tick?

10

Frans Groenendijk 05.25.05 at 7:22 pm

I have some simple but serious questions here. First I am amazed that it apparently the researchers found it an easy job to make a dichotomy of the blogs in the first place. Second, but more important, I miss a crucial comparison.
In my opinion to judge the role of the blogosphere in this pespective it should be compared to other parts of political life. The first one that comes to mind then, is how political parties function. In my experience the fragmenting of citizens’ political discussions into isolated conversations in parties is not a threat but reality. Among partymembers I saw and see a strong tendency to support the points of view of the partyleaders and little interest in the points of view from people in other parties. Worst case: whip.

11

Anthony 05.25.05 at 7:50 pm

#10 – It’s actually rather easy. George Lakoff provides a strong argument for why people’s political opinions and mindsets do break down fairly easily into a “right” and “left” despite there being multiple dimensions of issue-sets, and several different models for framing issues.

Also, even though there are a number of blogs which don’t really fit within the “left/right” dichotomy, it’s fairly easy to find 20 popular blogs on either side and exclude those which are hard to classify.

12

Seth Finkelstein 05.25.05 at 11:55 pm

From time to time, I think about writing a scathing review of Republic.com – but my joke is that nobody would read it (i.e. echo chamber).

The book has spawned an understandable cottage industry of analysis of polarization. But it’s worth remembering that the personalization advances which supposedly formed the dramatic technological danger, are in fact basically nonexistent.

Some good discussion from when the book first came out can be found at:


http://pup.princeton.edu/sunstein/sun_forum.txt

13

David T. Beito 05.26.05 at 8:38 am

I am glad that plan to take account of these issues. Even a conservative/dichtomy has some important problems…..as I’m sure you agree

Where, for example, would you put Volokh? I suppose it fits best on the conservative side but this classification is not without problems. Though Volokh tends to be pro Iraq war (much to the disagreement of some other libertarian bloggers), it is by no means a typical conservative blog.

A lot of folks there, for example, are anti-drug war and pro-gay marriage. Even Glenn Reynolds has some libertarian tendencies on issues like this.

In any case, I look forward to your research, especially regarding the issue of links. At Liberty and Power, we try to link to a wide range of blogs. We’d like to link more on the left but an obvious problem is that liberal blogs are less interested in exchanging links with us than the conservative ones. Huffington’s blog, for example, has almost a total blackout on libertarian blogs, especially antiwar ones.

14

saurabh 05.26.05 at 12:41 pm

I remember an analysis like this being released of 2004 election blogging a few months back. But I think insularity is not well-measured by interlinking. I might link to something to be snarky about it, to make jokes about it to my own peeps, but this is not the same as dialogue. I think focusing on comments would be more meaningful. That is, how often do liberals comment on conservative blogs, and vice-versa? My guess would be this is far, far smaller than the degree of interlinking.

15

David Foster 05.26.05 at 1:36 pm

Interesting and valuable work. I second the concerns about the simple liberal vs conservative dichotomy. An alternative might be to use the typology recently developed by Pew Research, in which the categories actually emerged from the data, using some form of cluster analysis.

16

Chris Clarke 05.26.05 at 2:16 pm

For me, the interesting doubt – I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it a concern – lies not in how one divides up the category “political bloggers” into neat packages but in definition of the category “political bloggers” itself. Would my blog qualify? Or PZ Myers’? Or Rana’s?

I certainly understand the need to limit one’s sample, and I think the initial group of blogs chosen is a fine sample. But is the intent to determine the effect of linking on the political thought of people who blog only about politics? Or are you interested in us folks who may have very strong political beliefs indeed, but who also have lives write about other subjects as well?

Because, you know, there are more bloggers like Rana than there are like Atrios or Insty. And trends that take place only among the putative trendsetters are no trends at all.

17

thibaud 05.26.05 at 3:27 pm

What Chris Clarke said. Another issue is that your model seems to have brushed aside the crucial question of how and to what end people use political blogs.

I’d posit that people who read them regularly derive several benefits, including two that most likely decrease political polarization:

1) encyclopedic: basic news and info drawn from a wider range of information sources than can be found on the reader’s preferred legacy media sites. Especially true of blogs that focus on locally-sourced international news, also true of more idiosyncratic blogs that cover non-political topics of the blogger’s choosing (e.g. Reynolds and commercial space travel).

2) entertainment value: amusement via short, snappy soundbites and put-downs;

3) the virtual pub: shooting the breeze, seeing old friends, enjoying the human spectacle as it passes by etc

4) solidarity in the struggle: camaraderie and affirmation with fellow partisans

For those readers seeking # 4 solidarity, and to a lesser extent, #2 artful put downs, the blogosphere may increase polarization, though it’s equally likely that their readers were completely polarized to begin with.

I’d suspect that a far, far higher number of visitors is more keen on benefits # 1 and # 3, the encyclopedic and virtual pub explanations. Most intelligent people are not anywhere near so political or partisan as the readers of CT or Powerline or Kos. They do not turn to the web for solidarity or for ammunition against their enemies. For these folks, a blog is worth returning to if it broadens their world or offers specific, useful information of a sort they don’t find anywhere else.

18

Keith, Indy 05.26.05 at 5:03 pm

It’s a small very diverse world, this web world.

I came here via Michelle Malkin, who mentioned a thread over at Freakonomics, who has a thread on “A Freakonomics Roundtable”…

To me this is the value of interlinking. Finding new sources of information. I’m now curious enough to pickup the Freakonomics book. And this interlinking study has me intrigued enough to keep track of this website. I think it’s a good first cut at measuring what has only been guessed at before.

Hi thibaud – I know that name from Roger Simons blog… See what I mean about a small world.

19

b 05.26.05 at 5:48 pm

I wonder about the premise of Sunstein’s argument (though I haven’t read the book). I think we’re being a bit too presentist. Throughout American history, have most voting citizens really had access to opposing viewpoints? I’d say this was perhaps true since the early 20th c., but not before.

20

Ugh 05.27.05 at 7:52 am

Sunstein’s book got absolutely ripped in a review titled philippic.com in the California Law Review. It made Sunstein look quite foolish.

21

Henry Woodbury 05.27.05 at 8:32 am

To expand the analysis, I would be interested in how often bloggers of one political stripe link to news sites of, ostensibly, another (just tracking who links to which New York Times op-ed columnists, and why, could be pretty interesting).

A significant amount of blogging is the attempt to rebut a news story or editorial with which the blogger disagrees. This provides active readers with both sides of an argument, even if they are predisposed to agree with the rebuttal.

22

eudoxis 05.27.05 at 9:39 am

What is the relationship between cross-linking and cross-ideological conversation?

23

Michael Yuri 05.27.05 at 9:57 am

I have a few questions about the study —

1. Suppose liberal blogger A posts something, and conservative blogger W responds with a detailed counterargument which thoroughly engages with A’s post. Then conservative bloggers X, Y, and Z link to W, saying “Take a look at W’s refutation of A.” Further, A could respond to W in a substantive way, after which liberals B, C, and D link to A’s reply.

As I understand it, this gives us six links that will count in your study as interlinking among same-ideology blogs, while only two links count as crosslinking. But in some sense, those six interlinks were hitchhiking on the crosslinks, pointing their readers to a real cross-ideology dialogue.

In this way, it seems like a simple link count could underestimate the amount of crosspartisan interaction that’s actually going on.

2. On the other hand, it seems to me that limiting the study to the top 20 blogs on each side could underestimate the divide between the two sides.

The top liberal bloggers likely read a number of the top conservative blogs. Similarly, the top conservative bloggers read a number of the top liberals. However, it would not surprise me if the further down a blogroll you go (in terms of traffic) the more one sided the list becomes.

Of the very popular blogs that a conservative blogger reads (and therefore links to), there is a decent representation of liberals. However, when you look at the more obscure blogs that a conservative reads, they may be much more skewed to the right.

If the study ignores any links that aren’t to the top 20 on each side, it may skew the results more in the direction of parity. I suppose if this has a significant effect it may be visible in the 120 blog study.

I’m interested in your thoughts on these issues.

24

murky 05.27.05 at 11:58 am

The trackback links on Typepad sites multiply a visitor’s link-out options for any given post. I wonder what effect that has on the diversity of sites a person frequents. I imagine Typepad counts trackback link clicks.

25

Seth Finkelstein 05.27.05 at 12:08 pm

What he said, here.

26

Allen K. 05.27.05 at 12:52 pm

How was the graph embedding on the right created? Was it by using the first two eigenvectors of the Laplacian of the graph?

(How odd to have a Post button with no Preview. I haven’t been here before.)

27

Ginny 05.28.05 at 2:29 am

An aside: while political blogs make clear the politics of the writer, the voice comes out with unclear gender, race, age, ethnicity, religion, place of origin, current address, education, etc. While the right and the left do group themselves to some extent, those groups also dimiish other factional divisions.

28

Josh 05.28.05 at 10:41 am

Eszter –

I won’t be making it to ICA this weekend so can’t ask — have you found a statistically significant difference between conservatives and liberals at all? The E-I ratios seem to have a little bit of difference.

I’m curious as to whether there is a difference based on belief/opinion, or just whether those who hold a belief, whatever it may be, tend to stick to those who agree with them.

Thanks.

29

jorge schaulsohn 05.28.05 at 4:35 pm

In my experience people with different persectives do not interact very much when it comes to politics. In a familiy reunion, for example we tend to ignore conflictive issues of politics or values. Same thing at the work place. Who do we talk about this subjects? Friends for the most part and with them we have a tendency to share a basic common ground. Why should blogging be any different?

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