The Internet has become a critical medium for American politics: in 2008, almost half of American adults looked for political information online, and 30 percent of Internet uses contributed to online political discussions. Using the candidacy of Sarah Palin as a case study of a provocative political event, this paper examines the tone, partisan leanings, and referential structure of six elite blogs. First by randomly sampling overall trends of Palin coverage and then by performing a quantitative content analysis of a sub—sample of posts, this paper finds that the valence and stridency of blog posts vary by partisan identification, and that stridency dramatically affects the referential structure of posts. Although the referential structure of blog posts varies significantly by blog, it does not vary along partisan lines. Nonetheless, the relationship between stridency and partisan conformity exposed by this paper illustrates a trend amongst conservative blogs to repeat the allegations of “liberal media bias” often voiced by traditional conservative media outlets, contributing to an “echo chamber” effect in the blogosphere.
Democratization, polarization, and the blogosphere
It is no secret that new media have become critical to American politics. In 2008, nearly half of the U.S. population used the Internet, e–mail, or phone texting to get news, share their views, or mobilize others to participate in the 2008 Presidential campaign. This emphasis on activism is critical: not only did Internet users view political videos and read campaign documents online, but 30 percent of them forwarded or posted political commentary, signed online petitions, joined e–mail lists, or contributed money to a campaign (Smith and Rainie, 2008).
The voracious consumption and production of online political information by the American electorate undoubtedly fed the accelerating news cycle of the 2008 campaign. Major news stories — such as the scandals over preachers Jeremiah Write and John Hagee, Hillary Clinton’s fictional account of Bosnian sniper fire, and Barack Obama’s comment that “bitter” small–town voters “cling to guns or religion” — were given “powerful urgency” by intense coverage in the blogosphere (Smith and Rainie, 2008). Likewise, record numbers of bloggers attended and covered the political conventions, and an increasing number of bloggers were employed by the Presidential campaigns. That 95 percent of the top 100 U.S. newspapers have reporter blogs is further testament to blogs’ increasing reach and influence (Bivings Group, 2007).
In this regard, the 2008 Vice Presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin was historic — not only because it was the first time a woman was nominated for the office by the Republican party, but because it exemplified the changing role of new media in shaping public discourse in the wake of a sudden and polarizing political event. Within days of her nomination, Palin became “far and away” the most searched–for political figure in America, and “reign[ed] supreme over the blogosphere” as the subject of more posts than Biden, McCain and Obama (Wilson, 2008). Even Palin herself acknowledged the role Internet users played in breaking and spinning news about her, blaming “bloggers in their parents’ basement” for “talking garbage,” sowing controversy, and spurring negative coverage (Stanley, 2008).
Palin’s candidacy allows us to map the process of opinion formation in the mass media by examining the information flow between traditional and “new” media. Do blogs propagate the institutionalized norms of journalism by relying on traditional media outlets (Reese, et al., 2007), or do they usurp the role of “agenda–setters” by breaking news in real time and provoking discussions of topics outside the mainstream media (Drezner and Farrell, 2004)?
This case study explores the relationships between stridency, referential structure, and partisan conformity in the blogosphere by studying blog posts about Sarah Palin in elite blogs from the day before her nomination (28 August 2008) to one week after the 2008 Presidential election (10 November 2008). It will begin by tracking the volume and frequency of blog posts about Palin in the six most–read, stand–alone political blogs, and then it will evaluate a sub–sample of blog posts via content analysis.
Democratization, polarization, and the blogosphere
Overwhelmingly, blogs assemble material from elsewhere before adding a stamp of originality to a post by contributing general comments or conducting some sort of analysis. Journalistic initiative and empirical investigation remain the territory of newspaper and television (Reese, et al., 2007; Sweetser, 2007; Lowrey, 2006). Tsui (2008) suggests that blogs use hyperlinks to foster a sense of credibility by establishing “facticity,” but that this referential structure wields leverage over traditional news sites by directing traffic (thus advertising dollars) to them. Others concur that the conversation between the mainstream media and the blogosphere is not unidirectional, but complex and bi–directional (Wallsten, 2007).
In this vein, some theorize that the blogosphere has transformed the ecology of mass media by shifting power away from mainstream media outlets (such as television, newspapers, or their Web sites) as blogs assume the role of citizen journalists or “agenda setters.” By this account, knowledge and authority are no longer held captive by insider ‘gatekeepers,’ but are embedded into a larger instrumental network. The Internet strengthens public oversight by making “fire alarm” or “burglar alarm” models more effective, and blogs have proven particularly potent when it comes to breaking scandals or encouraging grassroots advocacy and political participation (Kerbel and Bloom, 2005; Prior, 2008). Some, such as Howard Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi, even go so far as to argue that blogs thrive in an era of “open source politics” (Trippi, 2004; Lessig, 2003).
Yet others are less sanguine in their estimations. Kerbel and Bloom (2005) warn of the potential polarization of opinion in the blogosphere: it is “a highly fragmented place where people naturally and often aggressively divide into ideological camps in a manner that resembles the narrowcasting of cable television on steroids.”  Webster (2008) envisions a “marketplace of attention” in which purveyors of content must compete for readers as the fickle taste of the crowd reveals “a path to enlightenment or the road to perdition.”  Filling such a demand — and conforming to their own predispositions — bloggers link more often to those who share their political views (Hargittai, et al., 2007). And while some scholars argue that the “networked public sphere” strengthens democratic values (Benkler, 2006), others disagree by predicting that the Internet will fragment the public sphere critical for deliberative democrats (Sunstein, 2001).
Concerns about elitism also undermine optimistic readings of the blogosphere: demographic studies reveal that bloggers are more, not less educated, than media elites (Hindman, 2008). Furthermore, the Internet as a media market is more, rather than less, concentrated than the traditional media (Hindman, 2009), and a “Googlearchy” of page rankings enables elite bloggers to control the fate of the less fortunate who rely on help from more established colleagues (Hindman, et al., 2003).
Is the blogosphere a free–speech utopia, or do the editorial and expository conventions of blogs create an echo chamber that privileges some voices over others, controversy over facts? Prior research yields the following expectations of this case study:
1. The partisan identification of a blog correlates with the overall positive or negative tone (valence) in blog posts about Palin. Generally speaking, liberal blogs are more negative and conservative blogs are more positive in valence.
2. Blog posts become strident (i.e., more extreme in valence) with specific regard to Palin.
3. The referential structure of blog posts varies by the stridency of posts. Blog posts that are more strident:
a. Use a greater volume of links or references to corroborate their claims.
b. Are more likely to link to themselves or cite their readers.
c. Are more likely to refer to the opinions of news personalities or public personas.
d. Link in greater volume to other independent blogs rather than syndicated blogs or mainstream media sources.
4. The referential structure of blog posts varies by blog, and also by that blog’s partisan orientation.
5. Strident blogs generate more Web traffic.
Americans are consuming more political information online as they become an increasingly vocal public in cyberspace. We must ask how public opinion is formed and circulated in the blogosphere — how it compares to traditional media, and how it shapes the future of political discussions in the “real world.”
Blogs and blog posts selected
For the purposes of this study, a blog was defined as a Web site with regularly updated entries containing reports, inferences, or judgments presented in reverse chronological order. Using metrics provided by comScore (comScore, Inc., 2008), six elite blogs were selected from a list of 20 “stand–alone” political blogs and news sites ranked by the number of unique visitors in September 2008. “Stand–alone” blogs were blogs that were not affiliated with a mainstream media outlet, such as “The Caucus” for the New York Times or “The Fix” for the Washington Post. Sites that produced online news (Politico, Real Clear Politics, and World Net Daily), aggregated online news (Drudge Report and Free Republic), or employed professional journalists to write online columns (Politico and Town Hall) were removed from the sample . Of the remaining blogs, six were selected using popularity and partisan identification as criteria: Huffington Post; Daily Kos; Newsbusters; Talking Points Memo; Michelle Malkin; and, Red State. Three of these blogs were liberal and three were conservative; all openly espoused their partisan orientation, and their political leanings were considered to be well known to the general public.
A sample of blog posts about Sarah Palin was obtained using constrained search terms in the Google search engine. Items that were omitted by Google because they were “very similar” to listed entries were not included in the sample. Search results for the Huffington Post were obtained through the Yahoo search engine rather than Google, as Google identified constrained search queries about Palin within that blog to be potential viruses or malicious scripts. An index of blog posts including the title, date, URL and abstract (as available) of each entry was compiled for the six blogs. Duplicate listings were removed from this index (N=3,748).
The overall characteristics of the general sample of blog posts are described in Table 1. Of the 3,748 relevant posts indexed by Google, Huffington Post comprised almost a third of the sample (32 percent), and Michelle Malkin contributed the fewest posts (182 posts, or 4.9 percent). Likewise, Huffington Post dominated the sample in audience size: its monthly audience of 4.5 million was nearly two–thirds of the total audience estimated for the sample. The average number of posts about Palin ranged from three to 16 per day. Combined, the six blogs published about 51 daily posts about Palin throughout the course of her candidacy, although there were peaks and lulls in the volume of posts that coincided with public affairs and time–sensitive events.
Table 1: Frequency of posts about Palin. Blog Partisan
Huffington Post Liberal 4,545 63.7 1,189 31.7 16.1 Daily Kos Liberal 923 12.9 951 25.4 12.9 Newsbusters Conservative 732 10.3 590 15.7 8.0 Talking Points Memo Liberal 458 6.4 369 9.8 5.0 Michelle Malkin Conservative 247 3.5 182 4.9 2.5 Red State Conservative 235 3.3 467 12.5 6.3 Totals n/a 7,140 100.0 N=3,748 100.0 50.1
On 3 September 2008 — the day Palin delivered her keynote address to the Republican National Convention — the posts–per–day metric reached its apex at 151; if posts from 2 September and 4 September are included in this figure, the initial spate of intense inquiry into Palin comprised more than 10 percent of the total number of posts throughout her candidacy. Another large spike in posting occurred between 1–3 October, coinciding with Palin’s participation in the Vice–Presidential debate. Finally, depictions of Palin in popular culture — most notably, Tina Fey’s parodies of Palin on Saturday Night Live on 3 October and 21 October — created periodic spikes in the volume of posts.
Measurement of variables
Because my research questions dealt with the tone and referential structure of individual blog posts, 63 entries were selected from each blog to perform a content analysis of approximately 10 percent of the total posts (n=378). The unit of analysis was an individual blog post; extraneous data within this unit — such as subject–oriented “tags” or comments from readers — were excluded from analysis. The blog posts were coded for the following categories:
- Blog name and partisan identification;
- Post title;
- The valence of post title;
- Whether the title referred to the mass media, a mass media persona, or a public persona;
- Whether the title addressed or quoted Sarah Palin; the general valence of the post;
- The valence of the post regarding Palin;
- The quantity of citations (divided by type as references to self, readers, videos, blogs, mainstream news and commentary, other print media, books, government information, organizational information, or public information); and,
- The sum of citations within a post.
A “citation” was defined as a hyperlink or a substantive excerpt from another source that was delineated as a block quotation. The Kappa for intercoder reliability ranged between 0.71 and 1.00, with an average of 0.89.
While the general sample (N=3,748) indicated that six out of every 10 post titles referred to Palin explicitly by name, a content analysis of the sub–sample (n1=378) revealed that only 79 percent of posts that mentioned Palin were actually about her. Amongst this sample, 96 percent of posts were classified as original content (n2=294) — i.e., content produced and published by independent authors in the blogosphere.
The content analysis indicated that, in general, the tone of the blogosphere was remarkably negative : the general valence of more than 70 percent of the posts coded was “negative,” with almost a third of these posts classified as “very negative.” After adjusting for tonal differences between conservative and liberal blogs — and keeping in mind the post’s general valence, rather than its valence towards Palin — it was shown that conservative blogs spanned a wider range of tenor. While conservative blogs published almost twice as many “very negative” posts in comparison to liberal blogs, they also offered a greater number of “positive” or “very positive” posts (five percent and four percent more, respectively). In contrast, liberal blogs were markedly more objective: 29 percent of posts on liberal blogs were classified as neutral, a 10 percent increase from the overall distribution and a 19 percent improvement over conservative blogs.
While there was a small positive relationship between partisan identification and the general valence of posts, with both liberals and conservatives trending towards negative commentary, this relationship reversed direction and became substantially stronger when the variable “valence regarding Palin” was substituted for the general valence (Gamma=-0.905). Where the general valence of posts by conservative blogs was neutral in only 10 percent of posts, 63 percent of posts were neutral in their depictions of Palin. Likewise, whereas the general valence of conservative blog posts was “positive” or “very positive” only 13 percent of the time, conservative depictions of Palin were dramatically more optimistic, with almost a third of the opinions expressed about Palin (30 percent) classified as “positive” or “very positive.”
Yet while there were substantial differences in general tone and the tone regarding Palin in conservative blogs, the data indicate that enthusiasm for her was nonetheless damped — particularly in comparison to the flurry of euphoric reviews in conservative media outlets and her 58 percent favorability rating in post–convention polls (Rasmussen Reports, 2008). While there were 13 percent more posts that expressed a “positive” opinion about Palin than a positive valence in general, there were only four percent more posts that were “very positive” about Palin than “very positive” in general. Seemingly, the vitriol of conservative blogs was directed towards other sources as they painted an even–handed (if somewhat restrained) picture of the Republican Vice–Presidential candidate (see Table 2).
Table 2: General valence and valence regarding Palin by partisan identification. General valence Valence regarding Palin Valence Conservative Liberal Overall Conservative Liberal Overall Very negative 28.1 15.0 20.4 1.6 17.9 11.2 Negative 48.8 51.4 50.3 4.9 59.0 36.6 Neutral 9.9 28.9 21.1 63.1 20.8 38.3 Positive 9.1 4.6 6.5 22.1 2.3 10.5 Very positive 4.1 0.0 1.7 8.2 0.0 3.4 N 121 173 294 8.2 0.0 3.4 X2=27.6, ρ <0.001 X2=148.4, ρ <0.001
Just as conservative blogs tended to be more positive in their valence towards Palin than in the general tone of posts, the tone of liberal blog posts became increasingly negative when the subject of Palin was raised, although this change occurred to a lesser degree than in conservative blogs. The tonal difference in depictions of Palin between liberal and conservative blogs was quite dramatic: more than three quarters of the depictions of Palin in liberal blog posts were shaded by a “negative” or “very negative” valence, whereas only 6.5 percent of conservative blog posts portrayed her in a negative or very negative tone.
To clarify the implications of this wide tonal gap between conservatives and liberals on the particular topic of Palin, negative valences were collapsed into a dichotomous “negativity” variable that was evaluated for covariance with individual blogs. Did the proportion of negative attitudes expressed in a blog vary by partisan identification? Were the distributions of negative (or “neutral to positive”) opinion similar amongst blogs of similar partisan identification?
The covariation between valence and partisan identification in Table 2 suggested that, like valence, general negativity and negativity regarding Palin varied between conservative and liberal blogs. Nonetheless, while individual blogs continued to trend in the same direction of opinion by partisan identification — both in general, and about Palin — there were distinct tonal differences between blogs of the same partisan identification. Once again, conservative blogs exhibited greater variation than liberal blogs: where 79 percent of posts in Michelle Malkin were negative in their general valence, for example, only 20 percent of the posts in fellow conservative blog Red State were similarly so. And where Michelle Malkin contradicted the general valence of almost two–thirds of her posts by positively depicting Palin, a similar reversal occurred in only one–fifth of Red State posts. But it was the liberal blog Talking Points Memo that most significantly bucked the trend of partisan conformity: whereas Huffington Post and Daily Kos became substantially more negative in tone regarding Palin (a difference of 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively), in Talking Points Memo there were two percent fewer posts negative about Palin than negative posts in general (see Table 3).
Table 3: Differences in negative valence between blogs by partisan identification. Conservative Liberal Overall Negative valence Michelle
79.2 57.1 20.4 78.0 44.1 76.4 70.7 Negative about Palin
13.0 8.5 0.0 89.9 61.0 74.5 48.7 Percent difference 66.2 48.6 20.4 -11.9 -16.9 1.9 22.9 N 54 47 21 59 59 55 294
The “general valence” variable and “Palin valence” variable were collapsed into corresponding stridency variables that expressed an opinion’s amplitude, rather than its direction. Strident opinions were those that expressed “very positive” or “very negative” sentiments. Overall, Michelle Malkin, Red State, and Daily Kos exhibited the greatest stridency in their general tone, whereas Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post were the least strident.
It was predicted that conservative blogs about Palin would be positive in tone and become more positive when talking about her, and that liberal blogs about Palin would be negative in tone and become more negative when talking about her. This hypothesis was supported amongst two of the three liberal blogs (Daily Kos and Huffington Post), but contradicted by all three conservative blogs and one liberal blog (Talking Points Memo). In fact, the most substantial differences in stridency occurred in the opposite direction than predicted: there were 30 percent more strident posts than strident depictions of Sarah Palin in Michelle Malkin, and 23 percent more in Newsbusters (see Table 4).
Table 4: Blogs’ differences in stridency. Conservative Liberal Overall Stridency of posts Michelle
Strident about Palin 11.1 2.1 23.8 32.2 16.9 3.6 14.6 Strident 41.5 25.5 28.6 28.8 8.5 5.5 22.1 Difference -30.4 -23.4 -4.8 3.4 8.4 -1.9 -7.5 N 54 47 21 59 59 55 294 Note: For general stridency, X2=29.180, ρ<.001. For stridency regarding Palin, X2=29.180, ρ<.001.
The relationship between blogs and general stridency is not linear.
It was further hypothesized that more strident blogs would employ certain techniques in corroborating their authority, testing Lowrey’s findings that the bloggers revitalized partisan expression and Lasica’s theory that “what truth is to journalists, transparency is to bloggers.” (Lasica, 2005; Singer, 2007; Lowrey, 2006) In short, it was predicted that strident blog posts would bolster ambitious or controversial claims with a preponderance of online evidence.
Amongst conservative blogs, posts including more citations were more likely to be strident. Amongst liberal blogs, however, this theory was weakened. Almost two–thirds (63 percent) of posts including 10 or more citations in conservative blogs were strident, almost twice the proportion of strident posts including 10 or more citations in liberal blogs. In fact, my findings indicated that there were no strident posts in liberal blogs that did not include a citation, whereas 17 percent of strident posts in conservative blogs refrained from including a secondary source (see Table 5).
Table 5: Blogs’ differences in stridency. Conservative Liberal None 1–3
Strident 16.7 16.7 37.5 63.2 0.0 11.2 15.4 34.8 N 12 42 48 19 9 89 52 23 X2=14.9, ρ=0.002 | Gamma=.542, ρ<0.001 X2=9.6, ρ=0.022 | Gamma=.445, ρ=0.013
It was predicted that the stridency of posts would correspond to the type of citations a blog post used to corroborate its authority — that strident posts focused on arguments within the blogosphere, thus becoming more likely to cite to themselves, their readers, or other independent blogs rather than quoting syndicated blogs or mainstream media sources. There was a sole exception to the prediction that strident blogs would eschew the mainstream media: it was postulated that strident posts would be likely to cite news personalities or pundits, favoring inflammatory commentary over objective reports in the mainstream media.
Overall, the hypotheses that strident blog posts focused on conversations within the blogosphere were supported: an astonishing 95 percent of strident posts cited other independent blogs, and more than half of strident blog posts included two or more links. Likewise, six out of every ten strident blog posts cited themselves or cited news personas, and almost 40 percent of strident posts cited their own readers. There was not a statistically significant relationship between mainstream media citations and stridency. Overwhelmingly, the data suggest that strident blog posts are prone to navel gazing, and favor the propagation of opinion over facts (see Table 6).
Table 6: Stridency by referential structure. Strident posts
Cite self Cite readers* Cite
Strident posts with 1 link that… 18.9 38.5 34.5 24.3 40 Strident posts with ≥2 links that… 43.8 0.0 26.7 28.3 55.2 Total 62.7 38.5 61.2 52.6 95 X2=15.7
Note: *This is not a statistically significant relationship.
The dramatic (in both senses of the word) referential structure of strident blog posts became even more clear when the patterns of citation in strident posts were compared to the referential structure of all posts (divided by blog). Strident posts were more than four times more likely to link to independent blogs, and similarly, they were substantially more likely than the aggregate to cite their readers.
Significant differences also existed between the referential structure of individual blogs: 41 percent of Michelle Malkin posts linked to independent blogs, for example, whereas only three percent of Huffington Post entries did so. Similarly, 95 percent of Daily Kos posts linked to self — and while this was due in large part to the normative standards of the blog’s posting conventions, it was nonetheless a marked difference from blogs such as Red State and Huffington Post which linked to self only 30 percent of the time. In a more general sense, then, the data indicated that individual blogs varied in terms of referential structure — but that these patterns of referential structure were not strictly determined by partisan identification (see Table 7).
Table 7: Referential structure by blog. Conservative Liberal Overall Michelle
Volume of links*
X2= 64.2, ρ<0.001
1–3 links 35.2 38.1 28.8 40.4 52.5 69.1 44.7 4–10 links 33.3 38.1 37.3 42.6 35.6 20.0 33.9 ≥11 links 27.8 9.5 33.9 6.4 3.4 0.0 14.2 Links to self*
X2= 60.9, ρ<0.001
≥1 links 50.0 48.9 28.6 94.6 30.5 43.6 52.2 Links to readers
X2= 37.3, ρ<0.001
≥1 links 22.2 2.1 4.8 1.7 0.0 3.6 5.8 Refers to news personas*
X2= 47.2, ρ<0.001
≥1 links 35.5 68.1 19.0 18.6 20.3 20.0 30.2 Links to mainstream media
X2= 12.1, ρ=0.033
≥1 links 63.0 51.1 42.9 66.1 50.8 38.2 58.2 Links to independent blogs
X2= 32.2, ρ<0.001
≥1 links 40.7 19.1 38.1 28.8 3.4 10.9 21.7 Percentage difference
Mainstream – Independent**
22.3 31.0 4.8 37.3 47.5 27.3 31.5 N 54 47 21 59 59 55 294 Notes: * Results are not statistically significant, as 50 percent of cells had an expected count <5.
** Percent difference between blog posts with ≥1 links to mainstream media outlets and blog posts with ≥1 links to independent or standalone blogs.
Finally, the data confirmed the existence of a statistically significant relationship between blog traffic and stridency (X2= 29.2, ρ<0.001), but this relationship was negative (Gamma= -0.238, ρ= 0.011). By this count, blog traffic increased as stridency decreased — a result confirmed by the low percentage of strident posts (nine percent) in Huffington Post, the blog that was by far the most popular (see Table 8). This serves as a hopeful indicator for the future professionalization of the blogosphere, lending momentum to those who argue that there is venue, opportunity, and a receptive audience for bloggers who make serious contributions to public discussions of political affairs.
Table 8: Blog traffic by stridency. Rank Blog Percentage strident Web traffic
1 Huffington Post 8.5 4,545 2 Daily Kos 28.8 923 3 Newsbusters 25.5 732 4 Talking Points Memo 5.5 458 5 Michelle Malkin 41.5 247 6 Red State 28.6 235 Note: N=294. Gamma= -0.238, ρ= 0.011.
The findings of this content analysis were simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. On the one hand, the relatively even–handed tone with which liberal blogs treated a controversial political opponent such as Sarah Palin was promising: while bloggers such as Arianna Huffington and Markos Moulitsas — the namesakes of Huffington Post and Daily Kos, respectively — make little pretense of non–partisanship, the majority of posts on their eponymous blogs voiced objections to Palin by mounting arguments that were bolstered by secondary sources, rather than spouting unsubstantiated polemics. The correlation between stridency and an increased volume of citations indicates that bloggers concur with traditional journalists in the belief that even the profundity of pundits must be substantiated in some form. In this regard, the majority of blogs included in this analysis emulate the conventions of traditional journalism in a seeming attempt to live up to their prophesied role as citizen journalists.
Nonetheless, my data indicated that blogs tread a fine line between editorial opinion and objective reporting — that the legacies of both forms of journalism present themselves as viable options as blogs negotiate their identities as increasing popular resources for the general public. The predisposition of strident posts to cite conversations exclusive to the blogosphere, rather than to including a wider spectrum of sources, suggests that the opinions expressed by strident blog posts are more insular than posts at large. But some blogs, like Huffington Post, have veered away from this trend by adopting a more traditional model of journalism — creating a strict bifurcation between the opinions of online “columnists” and the reporting of public affairs and events, employing an increasing number of traditionally credentialed journalists, and publishing content from news wire services such as Associated Press.
Yet the specter of celebrity bloggers looms large over three of the six most popular political blogs. In the most general sense, eponymous political blogs — implicitly guided by the views of an individual, rather than a community — substantiate Hindman’s allegations of elitism in the blogosphere (Hindman, 2009). In comparison to the demographic reality that bloggers are more wealthy, male, and better educated that the general public, popular depictions seem hopelessly naïve — such as the Washington Post’s hopeful assertion, for example, that “Citizen journalism [in blogs] brings folks, young and old, into the public square, giving voice to those who, in the pre–Internet era, may have felt voiceless.” (Vargas, 2007) Equally disturbing is Michelle Malkin’s celebrity as both a journalist and blogger: a sense of schizophrenia is created when comparing her writings as syndicated columnist to the invective of her blog. This schism between her op–ed writing and blogging seems to reinforce a double standard of what kind of political commentary is appropriate in the blogosphere versus the traditional media.
Perhaps the most disquieting implication of this content analysis is the negative general valence of conservative blogs that overwhelmed accounts of a popular candidate. Surely, such wide gaps in valence regarding the depiction of Sarah Palin demonstrate differences between liberal and conservative blogs along the lines of partisan identification. Yet it is the paradox of two conflicting trends — the trend towards negative general valence and the trend toward positive valence regarding Palin — in posts about Palin in conservative blogs that make a stronger case that “partisan conformity” exists in the blogosphere. It is not surprising, of course, that conservative blogs reacted positively to Sarah Palin, whereas liberal blogs did not. It is surprising, however, that conservative blogs trended towards a general valence that contradicted their simultaneous support of a party candidate in posts about that candidate.
Although accounts in the mainstream media alleged that Palin’s candidacy ignited a “remarkably instantaneous” wave of support from the “electrified” Republican base, this ebullient enthusiasm — or even a moderate burst of positive energy — was absent from accounts of Palin in conservative blogs (MacGillis, 2008). Rather, the opinions expressed by conservative blogs echoed the allegations of media bias  and vilifications of liberalism in traditional conservative media outlets (such as talk radio or the op–ed pages of the Wall Street Journal) examined by Jamieson and Cappella (2008). As the name of the most popular conservative blog, Newsbusters, indicates, conservative blogs remain obsessed with “liberal media bias” that activates a “universally applicable rebuttal strategy” amongst their readers. And although Jamieson and Cappella concede that the echo chamber increases ideological coherence and encourages engagement, this approach also “massages” audiences’ “distrust in mainstream sources even as they continue to consume them.” .
In their account of the echo chamber in traditional media, Jamieson and Cappella predict “the emergence of a liberal media echo chamber with no pretense of balance” is all but inevitable — yet, the trajectory of the liberal blogosphere indicates a maturation from the ideological polarization of Netroots groups such as MoveOn or CodePink, to the online ObamaNation that recruited political moderates as well as partisans. In the aftermath of substantial losses in the 2008 election, young GOP leaders (including the founders of Red State) launched the sites, RebuildTheParty.com (http://rebuildtheparty.com/) and NextGenGOP.com (http://www.nextgengop.com/). They wrote: “2008 made one thing clear. If allowed to go unchecked, the Democrats’ structural advantages, including their use of the Internet, their more than 2–to–1 advantage with young voters, their discovery of a better grassroots model — will be as big a threat to the future of the GOP as the toxic political environment we have faced the last few years.” (RebuildTheParty.com, 2008).
Perhaps the real “toxicity” to fear in the blogosphere is not partisan conformity, but reactive insularity that limits the parameters of political conversations — or to borrow from Jamieson and Cappella, the lost art of compromise. In the New York Times, the legendary columnist William Safire incited: “As you cultivate the garden of controversy, burn the bridges of objectivity.” (Meyer, 1990) No doubt, this rich legacy of partisan commentary is alive and well in both traditional and new media — but it is nonetheless worrisome that political bloggers are much more likely to link to others who share their political views (Hargittai, et al., 2007).
More than a century prior to the inception of the blogosphere, Hawthorne wrote: “It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.” (Hawthorne, 1900) In an information–rich medium such as the Internet — widely available to a diversity of audiences, offering low cost of publication and few barriers to entry — the greatest impediment to the flourishing of political discourse in the blogosphere is not stridency, referential structure, or partisan conformity, but the limits of discourse within which bloggers circumscribe themselves.
By sampling overall trends of Palin coverage and then by performing a quantitative content analysis of a sub–sample of posts, this paper found that the valence and stridency of blog posts varied by partisan identification, and that stridency dramatically affected the referential structure of posts. Although the referential structure of blog posts varied significantly by blog, it did not vary along partisan lines. This study is not meant as a critique of the conventions of online political discourse, nor as commentary on different modes of partisan expression in the blogosphere. Rather, by attempting to better understand the discursive conventions and referential structure of blogs, it hopes provide relevant information for forecasting the future of online political discourse as new media becomes, overwhelmingly, the window through which many of us see the world.
About the author
Elizabeth Anne Roodhouse is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the effects of new media on adolescent political socialization; and the formation of political attitudes and opinions via selective exposure to new media.
E–mail: eroodhouse [at] asc [dot] upenn [dot] edu.
The author would like to thank Carmela Aquino for her assistance in content coding for this project.
1. Kerbel and Bloom, 2005, p. 22.
2. Webster, 2008, p. 32.
3. Although Michelle Malkin writes a nationally syndicated column, her blog was included in the sample because its format and tone are dissimilar from her contributions to the mainstream media and do not conform to the norms of traditional journalism. Likewise, although Huffington Post increasingly employs credentialed journalists to write columns, the constrained search for Huffington Post entries successfully excluded online columns, indexing only blog–style posts.
4. It should be noted that the “overall” distributions of the general valence and valence regarding Palin were slightly skewed towards liberal opinions, as there were unequal numbers of applicable posts from liberal and conservative blogs.
5. The informal system of tags implemented during content analysis revealed that 52 of the 294 (18 percent) of posts touched on the topic of “media depictions” of Palin; almost all of the posts on this topic included allegations of “liberal media bias.”
6. Jamieson and Cappella, 2008, p. 237.
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Paper received 5 August 2009; accepted 27 August 2009.
“The voice from the base(ment): Stridency, referential structure, and partisan conformity in the political blogosphere” by Elizabeth Anne Roodhouse is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
The voice from the base(ment): Stridency, referential structure, and partisan conformity in the political blogosphere
by Elizabeth Anne Roodhouse.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 9 - 7 September 2009