The two-step flow of communication

In 1944 and 1955, Paul Felix Lazarsfeld published two important studies that meant an important conceptual rupture in the field of mass communication studies. The first, conducted jointly with Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet, titled The People’s Choice, was aimed to measure the influence of the media on 600 voters in Erie County, Ohio, during the presidential campaign of 1940. The second study, Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication, was released in 1955 and co-authored with Elihu Katz. This book analyzes behavior of consumers of fashion and entertainment products, paying an important attention to consumption of movies. This second study focuses on the analysis of individual decision-making processes of a female population of 800 people in a town of 60.000 inhabitants, Decatur, Illinois.

The results of both studies highlight the importance of the primary group, which is characterized by its powerful action mediating the direct effect that the media can play in shaping the “preferences”. That is, communication is a two-stage process in which the role of social groups and opinion leaders is crucial. This hypothesis is known as two-step flow of communication. In the first stage, we have the relatively well-informed people which are directly exposed to the effects of mass media. In the second stage, the less exposed to the action of the media, which depend on the well-informed to acquire information.

The processes of social mobilization that occurred from May 15, 2011 in Spain, previously in the Arab countries (especially Egypt, in which the established regime was overthrown), as well as in other Mediterranean countries such as Greece, against crisis and against the measures taken by policymakers, offer an opportunity to review this hypothesis from the point of view of both its continuity and its diversity.

Several authors, such as Manuel Castells in his book Communication Power, seem to suggest the overcoming of this hypothesis. Specifically states on page 150, making explicit reference to The People’s Choice, that “for a long time scholarly research minimized the impact of media and political campaigns on the outcome of elections, a contradiction of the majority of political consultants’ beliefs and practices”. Perhaps such statements are based on a misinterpretation of the hypothesis of the two-step flow of communication, as the body of research that was generated under this paradigm in any way minimizes the importance of the media in shaping voting behavior, but only explains the process followed by the flow of communication in shaping the so-called “electoral preferences”: opinion leaders spread the message of the media among those who are less exposed to the direct action of the media. Hardly highlighting the role of the media in creating opinion, counting on the complicity of those who are most exposed to their action, can be considered “minimize the impact of media and political campaigns on the outcome of elections”.

The problem of the hypothesis of the two-step flow of communication is another. It consists in the directionality of the process. The work of Lazarsfeld seems to point that the media effect starts from media, going through opinion leaders, and ending with less exposed voters. That is, he emphasizes that the effect of mass media is not direct, as researchers first supposed in the opening moments of the Mass Communication Research paradigm (that is what has been called “the hypodermic needle model”, which was used for the first time in the research of Harold D. Lasswell Propaganda Techniques in the World War, in 1927), but mediated. The facts revolving around the political and social mobilizations that have been witnessed in 2011 suggest that the relationship between the audience and the media are bidirectional, or at least far more complex than Lazarsfeld’s original researches suggested. These events seem to suggest (in order to test this hypothesis we need to conduct a thorough inquiry) that directionality of this process could be the inverse of that which is proposed by Lazarsfeld, Katz, Berelson and Gaudet in the original studies: opinion leaders, through which it now can be considered the equivalent of the old word of mouth —i.e. media such as Twitter, Facebook, or the like— express a collective state of mind, which by thus goes on to constituting formal collective opinion (because, in fact, it comes from the collective spirit), thereby mobilizing many people who feels identified with this state of mind, which mass media (e.g., radio, television, newspapers, etc.) make becomes part of the communication agenda. That is, it becomes news. As you can see, this process, which is the same most of the processes of collective mobilization revolving around the discomfort generated by the social, political, economic and moral crisis seem to have followed in 2011, is characterized by going from social groups to media —even though it is undeniable that the mass media are a key element in order to achieve a greater mobilization, because like it or not these are still dictating news agenda— not from media to social groups, as initially suggested the hypothesis of the two-step flow of communication.