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.