Reports from the APSA panel on the political power of blogs

This year’s American Political Science Association conference had a panel on “The Power and Politics of Blogs”, featuring Daniel Drezner from the University of Chicago and danieldrezner.com, Henry Farrell from George Washington University and Crooked Timber, Mark A.R. Kleiman from UCLA, Andrew Sullivan, Antoinette Pole from CUNY, who (with Laura McKenna) writes the blog 11d, and Ana Marie Cox, aka wonkette and formerly of Suck.com, and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago and author of Republic.com.

Farrell presented a paper that he and Drezner co-authored. Its basic claims:

“(1) Blogging is politically important in large part because it affects mainstream media, and helps set the terms of political debate (in political science jargon, it creates ‘focal points’ and ‘frames’). Note that we don’t provide an exhaustive account of blogs and politics – some aspects of blogging (fundraising for parties, effects on political values in the general public), we don’t have more than anecdotal data on. There’s plenty of room for other people to do interesting research on all of this.

(2) Incoming links in the political blogosphere are systematically skewed, but not according to a “power law” distribution, as Clay Shirky and others have argued of the blogosphere as a whole. Instead, they follow a lognormal distribution.1 We reckon that the most likely explanation for this is that offered by Pennock et al. – they argue that not only do the ‘rich get richer’ (i.e. sites that already have a lot of links tend to get more), but that link-poor sites stand a chance of becoming rich too. Late entrants into the political blogosphere can do well as long as they’re interesting and attract some attention – bad timing isn’t destiny.

(3) Because of the systematic skewedness of the political blogosphere, a few “focal point” sites can provide a rough index of what is going on in the blogosphere – interesting points of view on other sites will often percolate up to them as smaller blogs try to get big blogs to link to them, by informing them of interesting stories. Thus, we may expect that journalists and other media types who read blogs will tend to all gravitate towards a few ‘big name’ bloggers as their way of keeping up with what is going on in the blogosphere as a whole.”

Reports from the panel suggest that it was a lot of fun. Apparently, witty wonkette stole the show by bashing the tendency of blogs to overblow their own importance. (Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the blogosphere’s equivalent of those guys (Galssman and Hassert) who wrote Dow 36,000 in the late 1990s, didn’t show up.)

Sunstein is well-known for being skeptical about the web’s promise. Republic.com in brief:

“See only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read. In cyberspace, we already have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to see, hear, and read. Tomorrow, our power to filter promises to increase exponentially. With the advent of the Daily Me, you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree. In all of the applause for this remarkable ascendance of personalized information, Cass Sunstein asks the questions, Is it good for democracy? Is it healthy for the republic? What does this mean for freedom of speech?”

Is that the future of the a world remade by the web? (Too bad there’s not as of yet a comparison of fMRI images of those who will read newspapers, blogs, etc., of those that disagree with them with the images of those who do not, just so we can continue with neuropolitics.)

I’ve been interested in mapping the traffic on the blogosphere to see whether links and movements are between like minded blogs (for the former) and blog readers (for the latter). Can we just reinforce what we believe by reading only those blogs and web press that agree with us, up to the point where our beliefs cascade away from any doubts and are reinforced? Long ago, Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine argued that pathological politics (in their paper, an aggressive nationalism) was enabled by a segmented media market and poor or absent norms in the press.

Historically and today, from the French Revolution to Rwanda, sudden liberalizations of press freedom have been associated with bloody outbursts of popular nationalism. The most dangerous situation is precisely when the government’s press monopoly begins to break down.(4) During incipient democratization, when civil society is burgeoning but democratic institutions are not fully entrenched, the state and other elites are forced to engage in public debate in order to compete for mass allies in the struggle for power.(5) Under those circumstances, governments and their opponents often have the motive and the opportunity to play the nationalist card.

When this occurs, unconditional freedom of speech is a dubious remedy. Just as economic competition produces socially beneficial results only in a well-institutionalized marketplace, where monopolies and false advertising are counteracted, so too increased debate in the political marketplace leads to better outcomes only when there are mechanisms to correct market imperfections.(6) Many newly democratizing states lack institutions to break up governmental and non-governmental information monopolies, to professionalize journalism, and to create common public forums where diverse ideas engage each other under conditions in which erroneous arguments will be challenged. In the absence of these institutions, an increase in the freedom of speech can create an opening for nationalist mythmakers to hijack public discourse.

Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine, “Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas,” International Security, Vol. 21, no. 2 Fall 1996

Unlikely in the US is my guess, though I do have some pro-Hindutva family members who seem to read only the muck of the Hindu right to reinforce their views.

But read the accounts of the meeting here, here, here (scroll down to September 3rd, 2004), and here.

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