Posted by: bburatti | October 15, 2011

Opinion Leaders and Influencers

Fifty years ago “opinion leaders” read newspapers and listened to radio, then expressed their opinions to their own circles of influence, forming the “two-step flow of communication.” Early opinion leaders were confined to advocating only to individuals with whom they could make physical contact.

Strip away the antiquated references to social assumptions, (men get out more and therefore have more opportunity to be involved in political discussion) and we still have similar behaviors today. Opinion leaders seek out more media and more political discourse. They have credibility within their circles.

Our current technologies allow opinion leaders to extend their circles. “Opinion leaders” are what we’d call “influencers” today. They’re the bloggers and the people with thousands of followers on Twitter. Traditional media watches and reports those opinions. Today it’s not a two-step flow. It’s a dynamic 24-hour circle of information with multiple platforms and multiple voices.

McCombs and Shaw’s report on the agenda-setting of media zeroed in on a volatile period of American history; the 1968 presidential election. That study specifically explored how mass media impacted the opinion of the undecided voter. The data found that respondents accepted the composite of the media coverage. The data also showed that the media spent more time analyzing campaigns than detailing the issues. Within that historical period neither of these findings is surprising.

In a world of no internet and no cell phones, mass media had a much greater ability to set the agenda. Opposing citizen opinions were confined to “underground newspapers” and “underground radio.” Young people didn’t blog, tweet, or text. They took to the streets.

That particular election year was filled with major political events: the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon resurrecting himself from his 1960 presidential run, and third-party candidate and proponent of segregation, Governor George Wallace. An assassination attempt on Wallace forced him out of the race. Reporting these unfolding events while delivering the daily “body count” at the peak of the Vietnam War dominated media coverage.

McLuhan’s observations on hot and cold media trigger compelling questions of how media can be used for different results within cultures. Even within America we have subcultures and diverse levels of literacy. The notion of selecting specific media forms to more effectively reach a population based on the level of development can lead to either expansive educational discourse or controlled propaganda. The sophisticated use of media can achieve either objective.

Questions for discussion:
1. Does traditional media match story selection and tone to the current opinion polls of the populace or does it lead by posing issues and the voting public adopts the majority point of view?
2. What is the power of word-of-mouth today?
3. Specifically how can the use of hot or cold media influence opinion?

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