In our examination of the historical overview of International Communications this week, we discussed WWII as a turning point where our social scientific understanding of media began to change. Thussu describes the explosion of international broadcasting as a propaganda tool by Nazi Germany, Japan, and the BBC’s role in aiding General De Gaulle, Russian news agency TASS, and even the U.S. Army in their broadcasting efforts. By the 1950s, in the context of the Cold War, there were increased concerns about the power of the mass media, as it related to Soviet Communist Propaganda. The research spurred by these concerns yielded the Two-Step Flow Theory of Mass Communication (Katz & Lazarsfeld, Personal Influence. 1955), which essentially posits that we are persuaded by people we find persuasive.
Unlike the “hypodermic needle” model, which considers the audience to be passive receivers of information, and the effect of mass media to be direct, the Two-Step Flow model emphasizes the role of human intermediaries in affecting how people process information. These “opinion leaders” are said to influence attitudes and behaviors of others. This may be demonstrated by the case of the “Oprah Effect.” With 44 million viewers, a successful book club, production company, and magazine to her name, Oprah Winfrey has proven she has the power to launch products and people at the mere mention of their name. Although she is not a political figure, she is credited with positively influencing President Obama’s 2008 campaign with her endorsement (Read it on Huffington Post). Other examples in our society today would include Jon Stewart, Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck, to name a few.
One has to wonder, to what extent these leaders are actually changing opinions. Isn’t it possible they are merely reinforcing positions that people already hold, or that they are predisposed to have if they are listening/viewing in the first place? Did tens or hundreds of thousands of people attend Glen Beck’s Restoring Honor rally on the National Mall a few days ago to gain new insight, or just to hear their own beliefs and feelings verbalized back to them, so they could feel like part of a group, a la Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Community?” It is probably a combination of both, where people identify with public figures that seem to echo their own way of thinking, and subsequently, when the time comes where a viewer is not informed or does not have an opinion on a particular issue, they may be likely to defer to the position of their preferred “opinion leader.”
This is relevant to our analysis of why communication has become central to politics now, because it has changed our ability to predict how the media influences audience behavior, and why some media campaigns do not affect audiences in the way they were intended. With the idea of the “mass” as now somewhat obsolete, we know that diffusing more quantities of information does not automatically translate to more influence. More attention is being paid to how information is disseminated, and who the messengers are.