Experimental research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and BuzzMetrics suggests that political bloggers can make an impact on politics, but that they often follow the lead of politicians and journalists rather than setting the agenda themselves.
Two Pew surveys conducted in early 2005 show that 16 percent of U.S. adults (32 million people) are blog readers. After a 58 percent jump in readership in 2004, this number marks a leveling off within the survey’s margin of error. But the blogger audience now commands respect: it stands at 20 percent of the newspaper audience and 40 percent of the talk radio audience. Meanwhile, 6 percent of the entire U.S. adult population has created a blog. That’s 11 million people, or one out of every 17 American citizens.
Now a preliminary report—Buzz, Blogs and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004—employed new word-of-mouth tracking and cross-media correspondence techniques to examine the impact of online buzz on the national political agenda during the last two months of the 2004 presidential election.
PIP and BuzzMetrics examined the interplay of blogs, online citizen chat in newsgroups, the mainstream news media and official political spin from the Democrat and Republican election camps and also conducted a case study of the “Rathergate” scandal involving CBS News and unauthenticated memos about George W. Bush’s record in the National Guard.
“The blogosphere is clearly a major addition to the national discourse,” says Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “But we need to be cautious with respect to the power of particular political bloggers. That power waxes and wanes depending on the sort of information available, the behavior of other public voices, and the tendency of Internet forms and formats to evolve in a very short time.”
The study will help to build a new framework for understanding buzz and its impact on society, according to Jonathan Carson, president and CEO of BuzzMetrics. “With social and media fragmentation, as well as the rapid rise of digital networks, we must ask ourselves what impact is being made on societal institutions like politics, media and our national agenda. We hope our findings will fuel debate and spawn further analysis to better understand these newly observable phenomena.”
The study relied on BuzzMetrics’ proprietary Discussion Miner technology to analyze: discussion on 40 top political pundit blogs comprising nearly 20,000 posts; and over two million posts of citizen chatter within liberal, conservative and neutral message boards. In addition, Pew and BuzzMetrics monitored key online sources of output from the Bush and Kerry campaigns as well as DNC and GOP; and sampled 16 major media outlets as a proxy for the mainstream media segment.
The scandal known as “Rathergate” and other moments in the 2004 campaign enhanced the reputation of political blogs, bloggers, and the blogosphere. But blogger power, the capacity of blog operators to make buzz and influence decision-makers, remains circumstantial: dependent on the sorts of information available, and contingent on the behavior of other public voices.