Balkinization  

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Relative Power of Conservative and Liberal Blogs

JB

This Wall Street Journal article proclaims that "Political activism on the Internet -- and in the so-called blogosphere, in particular -- has long been considered a liberal stronghold. But conservative bloggers show increasing signs of their own coming of age."

Huh? How long, precisely is this "long" of which they speak? Here's a New York Times story from two years ago entitled "Conservative Blogs Are More Effective" making exactly the opposite claim. (I remember this story because I was interviewed for it.)

Mr. Fertik [of Democrats.com] maintains that the blurring of boundaries [between blogging and older media] has benefited left-wing bloggers less than their adversaries on the right, saying that reports posted on conservative blogs more easily make the jump to the main news media. "The way we perceive it," he said, "is that right-wing bloggers are able to invent stories, get them out on Drudge, get them on Rush Limbaugh, get them on Fox, and pretty soon that spills over into the mainstream media. We, the progressives, we don't have that kind of network to work with."

Some on the right disagree, arguing that the news reported by traditional media is tainted by liberal bias. "We learned years ago that the mainstream media just weren't going to pay attention to us," said Kristinn Taylor of the Web site FreeRepublic.com.

But bloggers on all sides agree that the left has made less effective use of the opportunities to organize and wield influence afforded by the Internet. The reasons, though, are more complex than they might appear. "It's not just a story about the blogosphere," said Jack M. Balkin, a professor and director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. "It's a story about the conservative social networks of which the blogosphere is a part. The important thing is the network - and I mean the social network."


My assessment of how things work hasn't changed much in the past two years. The right had more powerful social movement energies and political networks than the left during the 1990s leading up to the early days of the blogosphere. Social movement energy and social networks are very important to the success of political causes and the use of new media. Conservatives had both. It is not surprising that they were early pioneers and powerhouses in the blogosphere.

The early blogosphere on the right was not really oppositional to American politics even though its rhetoric often sounded that way. That was because conservatives were ascendant in other areas of politics and media during this period. The right wing blogosphere built on existing conservative political strengths and networks and eventually bloggers learned how to help other conservatives coordinate messages and ideas.

That said, the conservative blogosphere was hardly monolithic. Many early conservative bloggers were upset with the Clintons and all they stood for, others were libertarian conservatives attracted by the new technology, still other conservatives turned to the blogosphere because of September 11th and the run up to the Iraq war. Lots of different types of conservatives got to the blogosphere early on and made important and effective use of it. This produced a synergy with other important conservative media organs, including talk radio and Fox News. It also helped that the Republican Party controlled all three branches of government as a result of the 2000 election, and that the United States was attacked on September 11th, 2001. Existing social networks amplified the power of the blogosphere on the right and the usefulness of the blogosphere to the right. Thus, despite the oppositional tone of its rhetoric, it is a mistake to see the right wing blogosphere as oppositional to existing politics. It worked with the dominant forces in American political life-- which were by and large conservative-- far more than it worked against them.

During much of this period, liberals were thrown back on the defensive. The blogosphere became very important to the left for precisely the opposite of the reasons it became important to the right. Liberals had lost social movement energies long ago. All the branches of government were arrayed against them; in their eyes, the mass media was increasingly following a conservative line or was being pushed into utter docility and irrelevance by a powerful collection of conservative networks and politically masterful Republican strategists who-- at least in those days-- seemed all but invincible. From the perspective of the left, September 11th seemed to turn the dominant discourse in American politics ever more into mindless demagoguery and liberal-baiting.

If the blogosphere was a way to connect to existing social and political networks and create synergies for the right, it was a way to break through the noise and find other like-minded individuals for the left. That is to say, the left found and employed the blogosphere differently in part because its social and political situation was different. Gradually, liberals used the Internet to form their own social networks and regain social movement energy. Liberal websites (not all of them blogs) helped create community and provided sounding boards for liberal ideas. They offered liberal counterweights to the conservative versions of current events emanating from conservative parts of the media. And the liberal Netroots-- however much it may upset mainstream politicians and traditional media types-- has been a crucially important feature in the resurgence of liberal political opposition and liberal political ideas.

After the 2006 elections and the collapse of the credibility of the Bush Administration, it may now seem to the reporters for the Wall Street Journal that the left seems more powerful on the blogosphere than the right. But it wasn't always so. Indeed, much of this resurgence is only the product of the past three years. Remember, the blogosphere is very, very young.

What is the moral of this story? The moral is not to ask whether liberals or conservatives are currently doing "better" on the blogosphere. The answer to *that* question will surely change over time.

Rather, the key thing to focus on is how the blogosphere can be used by people of different views in different ways. The blogosphere can serve as a counterweight to what its participants see as the dominant forces in American political life. That is a familiar romantic narrative of the blogosphere. But it can also work with the dominant forces in American political life and create synergies with existing networks of power and older forms of mass media. Indeed, it does this remarkably well, as conservative bloggers learned, and as liberal bloggers are now learning.

Blogs and the blogosphere do two things simultaneously. They allow people to talk back to others, and they allow people to form communities of like minded people. They are both oppositional and communitarian, divisive and connecting. These two features may seem at odds but they are actually two sides of the same coin. The structure of the Web-- its culture of linking and interactivity-- makes both features possible.


Comments:

when has a newspaper ever written a story about blogs on the internet that is accurate?
 

"We learned years ago that the mainstream media just weren't going to pay attention to us,"

Putting that together with : "is that right-wing bloggers are able to invent stories, get them out on Drudge, get them on Rush Limbaugh, get them on Fox, and pretty soon that spills over into the mainstream media. We, the progressives, we don't have that kind of network to work with."

suggests that the media only reports on real stories and not the made up stuff. Maybe that's why the conservative blogs keep complaining about the supposed liberal bias of the MSM.
 

I remember when the prevailing frame was that blogs were divided into "techblogs" (founded 1999-2001, mostly left of center but mostly about technology) and "warblogs" (founded Sept. 11, 2001 and after, mostly right of center, mostly concerned with terrorism, war and politics). In other words, the political blogosphere as such was entirely right-wing and about the War on Terror. That story wasn't true either, but for a couple of years it was what you heard.
 

Look. Only an outsider who knows absolutely nothing about wwwLand can speak with authority about blogs. Therefore, no matter erudite you sound and how often you are (or how long ago you have been) interviewed, you cannot possibly really understand what The Wall Street Journal knows to be true.

< /snark >
 

The blogosphere has far less political leverage than it is usually credited with. The percentage of the population which is active in political blogs is a tiny fraction of the electorate and are already politically active.

I am not aware of a single issue where the blogosphere has moved a party somewhere they were not already going. For example, the left blogosphere's number one issue is compelling a retreat from Iraq. The Dem leadership has given lip service to the "netroots" on this issue, but the Dems have not come anywhere close to pushing for legislation to actually defund the war and compel a retreat from Iraq. They know this would be political suicide with the electorate at large.

What the blogosphere does offer is a viable alternative to former information monopoly of the large media corporations. The so called "mainstream media" is establishment coastal liberal in its views and reporting, so the alternative media offered by the internet has been most noticeable on the right. However, for the portion of the country whose views are further left than the "MSM" along the lines of the EU left to Hugo Chavez, the internet also offers them an alternative news source.

Indeed, the alternative media of the internet and talk radio has taken many of the most informed news junkies away from the "MSM" to the point that the "MSM" is shrinking significantly. According to a recent Pew poll, the most informed media consumers read political magazines, listen to Rush Limbaugh and listen or watch public radio or TV.

Finally, the blogosphere is providing a much needed quality check on the selective and all too often outright false reporting of the "MSM." While the right started this quality check with such sources as the Drudge Report, the left has caught on and provides a pretty wide array of checks as well.

As a news junkie myself, the internet is a veritable Willy Wonka candy factory of information on nearly everything. It is in this news function that the internet most affects public opinion and politics, not as a megaphone for the often extreme views of the bloggers themselves.
 

Professor,

In both cases, the WSJ piece and the older NYT piece, don't you think the real point is to paint participative culture in an unflattering light, to essentially bolster the image of the traditional news outlet in the eyes of the folks who have plunked out their 8 bits for a pound and a half of pulp?

As you say, the medium is young. It is also so very far from monolithic or homogeneous as to make broad sweeping statements of any kind pretty nearly meaningless.

Here's a little thought experiment: Take your mind back to the early 1990s Usenet. Imagine predicting a change in the technology that would allow any individual to start as many channels as they like. Try to identify the ramifications of such technology. Because that's all the so-called blogosphere is, Usenet on steroids primarily via http. The level of participation has only just started its increase.

Seems to me what we're really seeing, then, is the beginnings of a new kind of participatory culture, with content of all kinds increasingly coming from users. This, naturally, is a long term threat to folks who make their living selling ad space premised on the notion that large swaths of the populace have to lay out their daily 8 bits for a pound and a half of pulp filled to the brim with said advertisements. So too for television, radio, etc.

But some of those fears are probably misplaced. Cable did not kill the networks. VHS did not kill the movie theatre. Video did not kill the radio star. They are all alive and well if not better than ever, while in the meantime we have added to the informational and infotainment landscape.

As for the central theme embodied in the title of this post, that will ultimately come down to money, like anything else...which in turn dictates the conservatives will hold sway, just as the money making conservative hate speech of Coulter and Prager and O'Reilly hold sway on "alternative media" such as talk radio. And since it is a simple fact that we live in a land where a man can stage a rabidly partisan "talk show", title it "The No-Spin Zone" with a straight face and be taken at face value by an amazingly large section of our semi-literate populace, well, anything as demanding of literacy skills as participative culture will remain lost on a lot of folks. It's a young medium and for the present a fairly weak one. It just seems bigger and stronger to us who put so much time and energy into seeing baby grow.

Peace
 

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