Blogs and partisanship in the US

by Henry on January 29, 2008

A follow-up on John’s post below. I don’t want to get into the back-and-forth about whether or not the conservative movement is hopelessly compromised, but I do want to point to some empirical evidence on the kinds of conversations and arguments that exist between left and right wing blogs.1 Dan Drezner and I co-edited a special issue of Public Choice on blogs, politics and power which came out this month – unfortunately, it is behind a stiff paywall (as best as I can discern, Springer Verlag is not an enormous fan of the access-to-knowledge movement). Among its contents are a piece by Sunstein (which provides a slightly more blog-specific version of the argument that John disputes), and an article by Eszter and two of her grad students on the specific ways that left- and right-wing bloggers talk to each other.

Eszter and her colleagues work from a sample of 40 well-known political blogs, and examine how these blogs did or didn’t link to each other over three week-long periods. Like previous studies, they find that the majority of links are between blogs sharing the same ideological position. However, over the three weeks examined, only five of the conservative blogs never link to a liberal blog, and only three of the liberal blogs never link to a conservative one. In general, they find that there is evidence that blogs are somewhat insular (they are far more inclined to link to other blogs like them than to blogs with different ideological positions), but far from being insulated (there still is a fair amount of left-right conversation going on). In general they find “no support for the claim that IT will lead to increasingly fragmented discourse online.”

More interesting still, Eszter and co. do some basic content analysis on the substance of links between left and right wing blogs. They distinguish between (1) ‘straw man arguments’ (their term for yer basic full on attack intended less to persuade than to harangue), (2) disagreements on substance (which offer critiques or refutations of the other blog’s argument), (3) neutral or non-political links (not politically argumentative at all; the example given is an Orin Kerr link to a Talkleft post about a parrot called Marshmallow), (4) redirects or posts which suggest that someone read another blogger on topic x without attempts to agree or disagree with the other blogger, and (5) agreements on political substance. Unsurprisingly, they find that the first category includes a lot of links back and forth – in total, according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it accounts for just under half of left-right and right-left links combined. But that also means that slightly more than half of cross-linking blogposts don’t involve scorched earth attacks, but real back-and-forths, and sometimes actual debate. This debate can itself be pretty excoriating to be sure, but it does have Real Arguments and all, something which doesn’t fit well with the standard media account of the blogosphere as a brutish ideological mudwrestling match.

This doesn’t mean that Cass is necessarily wrong; this is a glass half-empty glass half-full debate. Cass can argue that nearly half of all blogposts are exercises in simple pointscoring, people like myself who are more inclined to point to the democratic benefits of the blogosphere can argue back that there is obviously real debate happening at the same time. Really, what is needed to move the debate forward is a better understanding of how the effects of blogs compare with those of other forms of political communication. Here, my understanding is that John is largely correct on one important point. The political science literature strongly suggests that most people don’t have much contact in their daily life with strongly differing political views, and blogs may be the first point of vantage for them on starkly different political views. Two GWU colleagues, Eric Lawrence and John Sides, and myself, are currently writing an article which attempts a first cut at the broader set of issues on the basis of data about blog readers, but you’ll have to wait a little while to see what we have to say on this …

1 If I did, I’d get into some of the differences between the linking patterns of left and right wing blogs, which on an initial glance at the findings of Hargittai et al. go against some common lefty perceptions, but that’s a topic for a different post.

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{ 25 comments }

1

duus 01.29.08 at 8:22 pm

Thank you for that link to the special edition of Public Choice. I’ll take a look; a very inspired topic.

2

Bruce Baugh 01.29.08 at 8:40 pm

That sounds fascinating. And about half-and-half easy shots and eveyrthing else sounds about right, and grounds for, really, both some optimism and some pessimism.

3

Cranky Observer 01.29.08 at 8:50 pm

> Eszter and her colleagues work from a sample
> of 40 well-known political blogs, and examine
> how these blogs did or didn’t link to each other
> over three week-long periods. Like previous
> studies, they find that the majority of links are
> between blogs sharing the same ideological
> position.

How many of those studies were done prior to October 2004, and how many after? It was my experience that many liberal/progressive blogs linked to a variety of conservative blogs up to about Aug/Sep 2004. After that point, again in my personal experience, reading what had once been honest conservative/Republican sites became too painful due to the increasingly radical nature of the material posted there. It seemed to me at least as if conservatism, not to mention scholarship and logic, had been abandoned in the need to get Bush/Cheney re-elected no matter what the cost or consequences. This tone was maintained after November 2004 right through to Katrina – after which the tone was less triumphalist but still not very well grounded in reality. Personally it was at that time that I stopped scanning what had been my daily 5-10 reasonable conservative blogs and it is my recollection that that is the point when the progressive => conservative link rate dropped dramatically as well.

Cranky

Seriously, when one is accused of treason for opposing an Administration policy in good faith it is rather difficult to take the accuser seriously ever after.

4

Seth Finkelstein 01.29.08 at 9:06 pm

“Really, what is needed to move the debate forward is a better understanding of how the effects of blogs compare with those of other forms of political communication.”

Yeah, but you won’t get a lot of attention for that, unless you find either blogs are bad (in which case the regular media pundits will love you and the blog A-listers will hate you, see e.g. Andrew K33n), or that blogs are The Revolution (see … well, too many blog evangelists to count).

1/2 :-)

5

Henry 01.29.08 at 9:10 pm

cranky – the weeks were from June 2004, October 2004, March 2005 – but they didn’t find that there was any evidence of increased fragmentation/delinking over time; indeed they found that liberal blogs became significantly less insular over time rather than more insular. This is not a definitive proof of course, but it is an interesting indicative finding.

6

Slocum 01.29.08 at 9:23 pm

And are libertarian blogs counted as ‘left’ or ‘right’? For example, if CT links to a Radley Balko piece on police swat team raids, is that an example of left->left, left->right or is it excluded?

7

Cranky Observer 01.29.08 at 9:45 pm

> the weeks were from June 2004, October 2004, March
> 2005 – but they didn’t find that there was any
> evidence of increased fragmentation/delinking over
> time; indeed they found that liberal blogs became
> significantly less insular over time rather than
> more insular.

Darn – I hate it when facts explode a perfectly good anecdotal theory.

Thanks.

Cranky

8

Orin Kerr 01.29.08 at 10:47 pm

), (3) neutral or non-political links (not politically argumentative at all; the example given is an Orin Kerr link to a Talkleft post about a parrot called Marshmallow)

I see my diabolical plan to disguise political arguments as posts about parrots named Marshmallow is right on track.

9

mq 01.29.08 at 11:18 pm

Re the time patterns: it would be focus specifically on how the patterns change over time. I can’t see the paper, but I think that empirical studies not focused specifically on a time element often don’t look very hard at trends. I have noticed over my time on the blogsphere that the relationship between left and right blogs is definitely not constant — there are periods when the two sides give up on each other and periods when they seem to interact in a more friendly way. I don’t think June 04-March 05 is broad enough to give a full sense of this.

But Ezster’s study sounds fascinating. It seems like it will be seminal, in the sense of generating more research along these lines. It both answers questions and raises many more interesting ones.

10

leederick 01.29.08 at 11:20 pm

“Eszter and her colleagues work from a sample of 40 well-known political blogs, and examine how these blogs did or didn’t link to each other over three week-long periods… they find that there is evidence that blogs are … far from being insulated.”

Aren’t ‘well known blogs’ going to be ‘far from insulated’ by definition.

The way you get into the sample of ‘well known blogs’ category is to get lots of links. It’s not much of a surprise that some of these are coming from blogs with a different ideological position. Blogs which aren’t getting links from blogs with a different ideological position, are going to be less well known and less likely to get in the sample.

It sounds like they’re sampling blogs with high value of S+D and then saying these blogs don’t have low values of D. That isn’t really a shock.

11

John Quiggin 01.29.08 at 11:41 pm

Reading Sunstein’s piece, there’s a pretty big element of straw man. Blogs are measured against utopian ideals (a Hayekian market for ideas or a giant Habermasian meeting) and found wanting.

Meanwhile, the implicit presumption is in favour of the mass media status quo ante (presumably pre-Fox if possible). Sunstein doesn’t spell much out, but the implicit view seems to be that everyone should be exposed to the full gamut of defensible views, from
A. moderate Republican to
B. moderate Democrat,
by a common set of mass media taking the neutral stance that both are equally good.

12

Dylan Thurston 01.30.08 at 12:28 am

slocum, liberetarian blogs were excluded from the sample; only blogs that were clearly “left” or “right” were included.

13

fred lapides 01.30.08 at 12:47 am

Political blogs are a bit like magazines with a political cast: those that read them need weekly reminders of the gospel, lest the sin and stray.
those who read blogs of the right distain those of the left, and vice versa. When thee is a post, and someone from the opposite perspective comments, he or she is quickly dismissed and usually by name calling.

I go to one site and from time to time post comments that are deemed inappropriate–because I present an oppising view. I had been called a ” troll,” but now I am shut ut from the site (ISP blocked).

Thus when Obama tells us we are one nation etc I laugh. We are not. have never been except during a major war etc. We are Blue or Red etc

Libertarians? sure.But when they vote, they vote conservative, always, but the label convinces them they are above party allegiance and taking the high road.

14

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.30.08 at 12:49 am

Eszter and her colleagues work from a sample of 40 well-known political blogs, and examine how these blogs did or didn’t link to each other over three week-long periods…

Henry – since this post is entitled “Blogs and partisanship in the US”, am I correct in inferring that all the blogs in the sample were American?

Personally, I’d be interested in how many American political blogs linked to non-American political blogs – and how many non-American political blogs linked back. Even compensating for America’s immense population, I suspect there’d be a lot more of the latter than the former.

15

John Mark Ockerbloom 01.30.08 at 1:07 am

On the paywall issue: According to the Sherpa Romeo website, the standard Springer Verlag copyright transfer allows authors to post their final author copy (that is, not the publisher pages, but the last reviewed draft of the author) to their own institutional repositories or websites (with certain conditions and linking/attribution requirements).

So if you’d like greater access to the articles in the issue you edited, you may want to contact your authors and encourage them to post their articles in their local repositories or websites.

16

vivian 01.30.08 at 1:35 am

One of the points the Sunstein side glosses over is that political conversation is never just across policy divides. Of course there is a lot of intranecine conversation. Working out what writers believe, handing it over to friendly readers for comment and modification. And yes, moral support, which doesn’t always have to give a good summary of the opposing point of view (much less come from someone who publicly holds an opposing view).

It’s arguably different for newspapers or public airwaves because they’re costly and limited resources – so they should stick to news business (they don’t, of course). But blogs are conversations or soapboxes. Half the time on topic sounds pretty high. If one wants to make a fetish out of always being productive, one should go off to a business school and leave life to the living.

17

Slocum 01.30.08 at 2:43 am

Libertarians? sure.But when they vote, they vote conservative, always, but the label convinces them they are above party allegiance and taking the high road.

That’s not actually true. See, for example:

http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=121106B

18

Justin 01.30.08 at 3:11 am

The joke is on the guy who admits to being considered a troll. Last time I checked, trolls were too thick on the ground for there to be many false accusations.

Also a question: did the study note whether particular blogs had a style of linking? In reading, it strikes me that some folks do a lot of linking just to point out the enemy, while others really go for real debate. If there’s a lot of variance there, you could still end up looking at only blogs that insulated you from opposing viewpoints (though that wouldn’t be the fault of blogs, merely your taste in blogs).

19

Seth Finkelstein 01.30.08 at 3:39 am

One of the factors wrong in Sunstein’s argument in detail is a too-heavy reliance on the liberal/intellectual (terms used descriptively, not pejoratively) concept of the genesis of extremism, roughly that it’s borne from ignorance and the cure is education. Again, a very popular idea. The problem is that real extremists can be highly understanding (in a sense) of the opposite side, and STILL hate its guts. He basically confuses one particular path to extremism – cultural indoctrination – with the sort of self-selection done by people who turn into ideologues.

20

Eszter 01.30.08 at 4:31 am

Henry, thanks for doing such a great job of summarizing our paper (and for following up with additional specifics). And thanks to you and Dan for editing the volume!

Apologies for joining this conversation late, I teach 6-9pm on Tuesdays so I don’t get around to blogging until late in the day.

I’ll try to answer all of the questions that haven’t been addressed yet, but please remind me if I miss anything. [Three-hour classes are draining and I’m not at the top of my game afterwards.]

And are libertarian blogs counted as ‘left’ or ‘right’? For example, if CT links to a Radley Balko piece on police swat team raids, is that an example of left->left, left->right or is it excluded?

Thanks to Dylan for addressing this. As he noted, we excluded libertarian blogs precisely so as not to run into this classification problem. As you know, this led to excluding some very popular political blogs that would have been ideal to include, but after considering the various options, we decided this was the best method for this piece.

Aren’t ‘well known blogs’ going to be ‘far from insulated’ by definition.

Insulated was measured as engagement with other blogs from the same ideological perspective without a similar engagement with ones of opposing views. So no, I don’t think that’s in the definition. We were interested in widely-read political blogs, because we figured those were the ones with more potential to influence conversations. (If you want to suggest insulation by definition then I’d say a blog that nobody reads and thus to which nobody links would be such a blog by definition.)

am I correct in inferring that all the blogs in the sample were American?

Neither being based in the US or being an American author was a criterion for being included. Rather, what was of concern was whether the content on the blog addressed the US political system. This doesn’t really address what was of interest to you here, but I thought I’d clarify.

did the study note whether particular blogs had a style of linking?

No, I’m afraid we did not look at this. It could be an interesting way to pursue this work.

anything else you’d like to add? [I made that up:)]

I don’t have room for such a project right now, but it would be interesting to replicate this study this year, an election cycle later, and see how things may or may not have changed.

Also, one of my students noted in a class discussion recently that it would be interesting to replicate the study at a time that is not close to a major election. He suggested that there may be more interlinking at such times. This could be worth testing.

A note on authorship. The second author on the piece is Jason Gallo who is a graduate student in our Media, Technology and Society program. Matthew Kane is an undergraduate alum of Northwestern (was a student when we worked on this paper).

Finally, if you’d like to read the paper, send me an email (see my Web site for contact info).

21

Henry 01.30.08 at 2:46 pm

down and out – there is another article in the same issue that looks at linking patterns globally by Ethan Zuckerman, but unfortunately, as he notes, the data isn’t very good (he does provide some very interesting snapshots of specific national/regional blogospheres).

22

Ginger Yellow 01.30.08 at 6:18 pm

Where does Sadly, No! fit in this taxonomy? I could easily see most of their political posts fitting in either 1) or 2). Jonah certainly thinks they’re throwing up straw men (in both a conventional and a “haranguing, not persuading” sense), but from my perspective they’re offering substantive criticism of Liberal Fascism. Almost all of their posts are highly snarky and intended as mockery, but there’s often a lot of research and evidence to back it up.

23

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.31.08 at 3:30 am

Eszter and Henry: think you very much for your responses.

24

alphie 01.31.08 at 8:19 am

I think the main reason that bloggers link to a post on another blog is…that blog mentions them in the linked post.

Simple self promotion.

25

a very public sociologist 02.01.08 at 2:14 pm

Very interesting. There is some fretting on leftyblogland in the UK that we spend far too much time polemicising and talking among ourselves rather than taking our arguments to our opponents on the other side of the political spectrum. It’s good to see we’re not atypical.

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