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Conservative and liberal bloggers

- February 6, 2008

“Eszter Hargittai and her colleagues”:http://www.springerlink.com/content/p7m41t21344130t7/?p=8c07e7e8f74145ddbe869374d6e114cc&pi=4 have some interesting research,[1] which I’ve “blogged”:http://crookedtimber.org/2008/01/29/blogs-and-partisanship-in-the-us/ about before, on linking patterns and partisanship in the blogosphere. Among the other data they report is some that suggests that conservatives are more likely to respond substantively to liberals than vice-versa.

Straw-man arguments account for 43% of the 42 links from conservative blogs to liberals in our sample, and 54% of the 63 links from liberal blogs to conservatives in our group of entries that include cross-ideological linkages. …Posts that concretely address the content of a blog entry from an ideological opponent
represent about a quarter (26%) of all conservative and about one fifth (21%) of all liberal posts with cross-ideological links. Substantive disagreement accounted for 12% of links from conservative to liberal blogs and 16% of links from liberals to conservatives, while substantive agreement accounted for 14% of links from conservatives to liberals and 5% of pointers from liberals to conservatives.

On the assumption that this captures a broader phenomenon, what could explain this behaviour? Four possible quick-and-dirty explanations come to my mind (readers may have others, or more sophisticated variants of the ones I present).

# The quick conservative explanation. Conservatives are more committed to norms of fair exchange than liberals are, and more likely to respond substantively to arguments from the other side. So there.
# The quick liberal explanation. The conservative movement is so intellectually corrupt that it doesn’t have any arguments that are worth taking seriously, and therefore smart left-of-center bloggers don’t usually bother. So there.
# The structural power explanation. Hargittai et al. did their research in a period when liberal blogs had come to dominate the blogosphere in terms of perceived clout, readership etc. Therefore conservatives, as a dominated fraction, had better reason to take liberals seriously than vice-versa so as to to maintain their position, try to encourage liberals to link to them etc.
# The organizational differences explanation. Many of the surveyed major liberal blogs perceive themselves as being part of an organized political movement, the ‘netroots,’ while most major conservative blogs do not (there is no good equivalent to the netroots on the right). Many liberal bloggers are thus less interested in abstract debate than in effective political action, which requires movement-building, attacking the other side etc.

In a sense, these are less explanations than pre-explanations – the sort of things that drift through your mind as you try to figure out whether any of them can be supported with empirical evidence. It’s also worth noting that they are not mutually exclusive – even the quick conservative and quick liberal explanations could be made compatible with each other with a bit of tweaking. For what it’s worth though, my first estimation guess is that the fourth of the explanations listed above is the most important. There is clear (if non-systematic) evidence of important differences between how left and right bloggers organize and perceive themselves. There also is some reason to believe that this has implications for practices of linking and argumentation.

See, for example, this “article”:http://dkosopedia.com/wiki/Troll_rating on troll rating from the Daily Kos’s dKospedia.

bq. the line between disagreement and trolling often isn’t an easy one to define. … This site is primarily a Democratic site, with a heavy emphasis on progressive politics. It is not intended for Republicans, or conservatives. … This is not a site to debate conservative talking points. There are other sites for that. This is not a site for conservatives and progressives to meet and discuss their differences. There are other sites for that, too. … Conservative debaters are not welcome simply because the efforts here are to define and build a progressive infrastructure, and conservatives can’t help with that. There is, yes, the danger of the echo chamber, but a bigger danger is becoming simply a corner bar where everything is debated, nothing is decided, and the argument is considered the goal. The argument, however, is not the goal, here. This is an explicitly partisan site: the goal is an actual infrastructure, and actual results.

This lays out some of the reasons why we might expect sites like the Daily Kos (still the most important liberal blog community out there) not only to ban conservatives from commenting, but also not to want to engage in substantive, reasoned debate with conservative bloggers elsewhere. They perceive their role as building an organization, not as trying to create some kind of Habermasian ideal speech situation. And to the extent that this is true, their contact with people of opposing viewpoints is not intended to reach a mutually agreeable settlement, or to politely exchange views, but to win. There’s room for debating whether or not this is a good thing in normative terms (Cass Sunstein, for example, “argues”:http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7014.html that it’s a bad thing; I hope to be debating him on this stuff soon), but it very likely plays an important role in explaining the differences that Eszter and her colleagues have found.

fn1. Eszter Hargittai, Jason Gallo and Matthew Kane, “Cross-ideological discussions among conservative and liberal bloggers,” _Public Choice_ 134, 1-2:67-86.