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Changing Face of Politics

Published: November 3, 2008

Kevin Wallsten: New Media's Influence

Photo by David J. Nelson
Kevin Wallsten

The impact of new Web-based applications such as Facebook, YouTube and blogs on public opinion was brought home to Political Science’s Kevin Wallsten in 2005 with the resignation of longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather.

A number of bloggers had pointed out that a memo cited by Rather in a report critical of President George Bush’s military service was actually printed in Word which came years afterward. When bloggers picked up demands for Rather’s resignation, he was gone.

For those who resist the new media, a blog (a contraction of the term “Web log”) is a Web site, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. “Blog” can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.

“I’m interested in how new media, which are primarily generated by average citizens, can influence old media,” said Wallsten, who joined the university in the fall of 2008. “What drives the usual media coverage of electoral politics? A big influence is what normal citizens talk about on blogs or what videos are popular on YouTube. What I’ve spent most of my time doing is trying to assess exactly how these matter. What issues start in the new media and wind up in the old media?”

Wallsten believes new media is changing the dynamics of U.S. politics. “With blogs, citizens have a way to influence what politicians and journalists say,” he explained. “With new media, citizens have the cheap, easy power to broadcast their political opinions. This is bottom-up politics, not the top-down variety where politicians and mainstream media elites influence public opinion. Today, people have the tools to broadcast their political opinions, not only to other citizens, but to political elites. Today, if politicians and journalists want to know what people think, they can sign on the Internet. Learning what is being talked about on blogs has become a way for politicians and journalists to keep track of what issues are of interest. These new tools give citizens ways to influence political discourse in ways no one has ever seen before.”

Computers may not yet be “mass media” in the traditional sense but they skew heavily toward the young people who use those tools. “Tapping into Facebook and YouTube has changed the way young people engage with the current presidential campaign,” he said. “But, at the same time, it speaks to more than only young people and their issues. This is a way for politicians and journalists to speak to young people using the tools young people themselves use to communicate. Politicians are beginning to understand that it is not only what they say but how they communicate that matters.”

But there is a dark side to the new media. “Most of it is highly opinionated,” Wallsten said. “In the traditional media environment of the 20th century, everyone watched the same three news channels. There might be different opinions about what was being said but everyone heard the same things. Now there are so many diverse media outlets. There is cable news or Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. Now there are many different messages and most people don’t enjoy listening to opinions with which they disagree. Because the media market has become so fragmented, people can select what to be exposed to. It is entirely possible that one party will never hear what the other party says. There is the potential for sharper ideological divisions. There may be less ability to compromise and more conflict.”

Wallsten earned his undergraduate degree in political science is from UC Irvine and his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 2008.

Modern politics is growing in technological sophistication. “Each election changes how communication is used in the next one,” he said. “The big development of the 2008 presidential campaign has been social networking platforms and the use of YouTube by the candidates. Blogs made a big difference in 2004. Websites made the difference in 2000. These things operate on a time lag. Politicians are quicker to adopt the new media once they realize they work.”

The future of new media may be in local politics. “State and congressional candidates have been slow to adopt communication changes,” he said. “In the 2010 elections, I can see more social networking platforms at lower levels of politics. The Obama campaign has given them a model for how to use these media technologies effectively.”