Cascades and the political blogosphere
First Monday

Cascades and the political blogosphere by Jeff Swift

Despite the fact that political blogs seem to be just as dominated by elites as traditional journalism, networks of individuals play an essential role in spreading arguments in the political blogosphere. The hyperlinking economy of political blogs is powered by competition, elevation, and access. This economy values networks of individuals just as much as — if not more than — it values elite top–tier bloggers.


Cascading hyperlinks
Credibility cascades
Cascades and “second order” diversity




Aaron Bady’s blog,, was just another WordPress blog. Up until late 2010, his blog received a respectable number of views per day, but nothing astronomical. In November 2010, Bady posted a thorough, thoughtful, and probing analysis of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. His blog post was picked up by an influential blogger, Wayne Marshall, who had been following Bady’s blog since 2008. After a handful of others promoted his piece, it was read tens of thousands of times, becoming an important piece of journalism that changed the trajectory of the Assange and Wikileaks debate. Even more found out about Bady’s post when the Atlantic wrote an article describing how this unknown blogger had been catapulted into the elite blogosphere realm. Over the course of a few short weeks, Aaron Bady went from an almost unknown blogger to an influential commenter on a current political event. While many argue that the blogosphere is dominated by institutions and established sources — “elites” — the stories of Bady and his fellow non–elite bloggers [1] seem to suggest that the blogosphere is indeed a place where small bloggers have a chance at getting their voices heard (Madrigal, 2010).

The rise of the American political blogosphere began in the late 1990s with the advent of, a liberal activist network advocating for the nation to “move on” from President Clinton’s impeachment and on to substantive policy issues. This digital network was strengthened by unified opposition to President George W. Bush’s policies from 2001–2008, flexing their muscles in 2004 by rallying behind Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. They came into their own in the 2008 presidential election when the nascent liberal blogosphere, then known as the “netroots” movement, participated in a major presidential debate, repeatedly influenced the national conversation, and threw significant support behind their favorite candidate, then U.S. Senator Barack Obama. This support did not come from the entire netroots movement, however — the netroots were passionately and often antagonistically divided between supporting Senator Obama and U.S. Senator Hilary Clinton. The netroots were no longer united in opposition to a common opponent, and had to work through the difficulties of online disagreement (Boehlert, 2009).

The digital disagreement between the two Senators’ supporters represents one of the most influential aspects of political blogs — their ability to foster, stimulate, and influence political discourse in our society so infatuated with all things digital. Bloggers are becoming increasingly influential as they build on their humble beginnings by developing into legitimate actors in the American political process. As such, they should be carefully analyzed for what they do to help — and what they do to harm — systems of political discussion, debate, and disagreement.

Background and theory

This paper seeks to add to the research by examining the notion that the online public sphere is defined by its inability to bring two opposing opinions together in productive dialogue. It joins discussion of the digital public sphere as the intersection between rhetoric (Fraser, 1990; Hauser, 2002), communication (Castells, 2008), and digital media (Dahlberg, 2001). This intersection is particularly relevant today, considering the advent of “Web 2.0” technologies more focused on contribution and participation than on one–to–many broadcasts and static Web pages. The online public sphere has traditionally been polarizing, but there are also indications of hope for productive dialogue in the digital realm. This paper will look specifically at the political blogosphere for examples of two different dynamics regarding opposing viewpoints: information cascades and reputation cascades.

These two kinds of cascades provide a model for why political debate and dialogue take place online in the manner they do. Bikhchandani, et al. (1992) started studying information cascades 20 years ago, arguing that individuals tend to follow behaviors of other individuals rather than relying on their own information. Anderson and Holt (1997) confirm this trend. Cass Sunstein has written extensively on the concept, explaining that people will “end up believing something — even if that something is false — simply because other people seem to believe that it is true” [2]. These cascades happen when people lack firm convictions of their own, and are therefore more willing to agree with the convictions of trusted individuals [3]. This theory has since been examined by Hung and Plott (2001), confirming that while cascades do not occur in every situation, they do happen under certain circumstances. In cases where informational cascades take place, people rely on others as heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, in their decision–making processes.

Reputational cascades are a particular kind of cascade where social desirability takes precedence over information itself. Reputational cascades drive individuals to “speak out, or remain silent, or even engage in certain expressive activity, partly in order to preserve their reputations, at the price of failing to say what they really think” [4]. The Asch experiments are the most famous, and disturbing, confirmations of reputational cascades. Essentially, these studies demonstrated that individuals are much more likely to outwardly endorse incorrect answers to questions about simple observations when others around them were endorsing the incorrect answers. These studies showed that individuals, unwilling to contradict the group, will conform to the group’s incorrect assessments [5]. The implications of this study are profound: if individuals are surrounded by a certain opinion, they will often override their own thought processes in order to fit in with the group. As more individuals outwardly align themselves with that particular opinion, more reputational pressure mounts on those who have not decided, thus extending the cascade.

Importantly, small changes in the experimental situation suggest there is still hope for debate and dialogue: “The existence of at least one compatriot, or voice of sanity, dramatically reduced both conformity and error. When just one other person made an accurate match, errors were reduced by three–quarters, even if there was a strong majority the other way” [6]. The existence of even one in–group dissenter was enough to encourage the individual to act correctly. The implications of this on the large scale indicate that groups with a healthy amount of dissent and opposing viewpoints will be least likely to allow the distortions that happen with reputational cascades.

For the purposes of this paper, I will treat informational and reputational cascades as a single phenomenon — the dynamics of individual conformity to group beliefs due to external factors (informational or reputational). While much has been written about political blogging as a substantial factor in current debates, I have not found any discussions of the cascade effects in the political blogosphere. I will look at three specific elements of the political blogosphere in light of the theories of cascading discussed above. Throughout the discussion I will present alternative ways of understanding the partisanship, disagreement, and argumentation that defines the blogosphere. The three elements of the blogosphere I will focus on are linking practices, search engines, and “experts.”



Cascading hyperlinks

Bimber and Davis (2003) found that campaign Web sites do little to convince the unconvinced, instead focusing more on polarizing and mobilizing than persuading. Their work on the effects of the Internet on political persuasion was followed by other research, which found that political interaction online is defined by like–minded echo chambers rather than thoughtful deliberative iterations of the public sphere. Hindman’s (2009) substantial study found that the political blogosphere is defined by the kind of power–law relationship that many thought the Internet would overcome: the most–read blogs and commentary sites get most of the traffic, with the rest getting almost no attention. Sunstein (2009) argued that the “Daily Me” — first suggested years before by Internet scholar Nicholas Negroponte to describe the situation in a digital world where individuals are not subjected to any ideas that disagree with their own — is coming to fruition in the digital age. Others have found readers of political blogs to be more polarized than their non–blog–reading counterparts, that linking practices of political blogs tend more toward homophily than diversity and dialogue, and that political blogs link more frequently to agreeing opinions than to dissenting ones (Lawrence, et al., 2009; Nahon, et al., 2011; Adamic and Glance, 2005). These studies suggest the existence of a politically polarizing blogosphere where opposites repel each other into partisan cocoons of untested opinions.

While these findings do present a bleak image of the blogosphere’s effects, it is also important to take into consideration the positive implications these characteristics bring to the public sphere. These linking practices are what social network theory refers to as “homophily theory or ‘birds of a feather flock together’ theory” [7], and have some under discussed upsides. Homophily in the political blogosphere brings three important advantages: 1) more competition in the economy of ideas; 2) the process of elevation; and, 3) openness and opportunity.

Competition in the economy of ideas

These linking practices help us redefine cascades for the digital age. These cascades are first and foremost powered by the hyperlink and the desire for page views, which are the “the currency of the blogosphere” [8]. Because political and other ad–supported blogs (as opposed to personal/family blogs, internal company blogs, etc.) are interested in gaining more of this currency, a new economy has developed around the blogosphere. Similar to Lanham’s “economy of attention,” an individual’s eyes are the most sought after reward. If a political blogger can bring Internet traffic through hyperlinks from other blogs, and then convince more individuals to give their attention to the blogger’s posts, that blogger will gain value in the blogging marketplace.

The audience of a blog has important differences with audiences of other media, and thus changes our understanding of cascades in the digital age. Watts and Dodds (2007) stipulated that, in the right circumstances (the right “regime”), large–scale cascades can be influenced both by elites and by non–elites: “Only in the intermediate regime, called the ‘cascade window’ ... can global cascades take place, and in that region both influentials and average individuals are likely to trigger them” [9]. The political blogosphere’s linking trends suggest that more individuals are able to be involved in these cascades, increasing the chances that a “global” cascade will take place. Sunstein previously posited that the individuals with the weakest opinions are the ones most likely to be influenced by a cascade. Digital age cascades are able to include a higher number of individuals with strong opinions on the matter, as they allow the likeminded to gather and pool their opinion power. Current examples of the power of this pooled cascade influence include the 2008 Obama campaign for President, advocates on both sides of the global warming debate, “birther” conspiracies, liberal rumors about Sarah Palin’s son Trig, and “deathers” (those who doubt that Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011), some of which were discussed in Sunstein’s 2009 book On rumors. As one commentator explained in a review of Sunstein’s book, “the Internet makes it easy for extremists to chat with their soul mates” (Kolbert, 2009). These cascades of soul mates are the most powerful because each group is supported and defined by such a large group of partisans that they spread wider and farther. These cascades have more partisan firepower in the political blogosphere, as the like–minded are able to support each other with links, commentary, and referrals. Competition is not always good — there are issues that do not have an “other” side that is worth attention — and openness and equality mean that all opinions have an equal opportunity to be heard. This opportunity does open the door for distracting and misleading conspiracy theories, but also keeps the same door open for the truth, however suppressed or disliked it may be.


Many suggest that the blogosphere destroys the gatekeeping function that has ensured (and defined) quality writing since the first book publisher, academic journal, and daily newspaper. The blogosphere does indeed allow “just anybody” to be published, to regularly write articles, and to post opinions and reports on current events. But, as demonstrated by the linking practices discussed above, this does not mean that everyone is read equally. The linking practices and traffic trends indicate that the blogosphere does have editorial mechanisms that mitigate many of the problems attendant to such low barriers to entry and such high participation.

The political blogosphere is defined by its elevating function. While most blogs don’t have many readers, the most–read blogs can gain credibility by linking out to other important but less–read blogs. In this way, the most influential blogs sift through the political opinions of other blogs, elevating the most interesting and stimulating and shunning the banal, poorly researched, or incoherent. This process helps the blogosphere create and maintain quality: “In this manner, bloggers with fewer links function as ‘fire alarms’ for focal point blogs, providing new information and links. This reduces the need for bloggers at the top of the link structure to engage in ‘police patrols’ to gather information on their own” [10]. The blogosphere becomes a network of “fire alarms,” increasing the time the bloggers are able to curate opinion networks because they do not have to go out and “patrol” all of the areas relevant to their specific blog.

Openness and opportunity

The blogosphere, then, is monitored carefully by bloggers who are motivated by the currency of links and page views and therefore provide the chance for non–elites to succeed. This monitoring and elevating process is more thorough than it is given credit for, promoting the best ideas and blogs so that they float to the top and creating an economy where a small blog can indeed influence the debate in important ways: “[w]hile ‘rich’ sites are still likely to get ‘richer,’ ... ‘poor’ sites too stand some chance of getting rich, if they are lucky” [11]. A recent example of this is Aaron Bady’s blog, discussed above.

The linking practices of the political blogosphere demonstrate the biggest advantage the blogosphere has over traditional media: flexibility. Aaron Bady should not be a syndicated columnist or a regular at a newspaper — he is a graduate student in African literature at University of California, Berkeley. Without the openness and opportunity provided by the blogosphere, Bady’s work would not have been published: Bady would not have put forth the considerable effort required to make it through the traditional gatekeeping process. And without the elevation function of the blogosphere, his post never would have been selected from the countless blog posts discussing Assange. Overall, without the competition to the traditional media that the blogosphere represents, this high–quality piece of analytical journalism [12] would have lived and died under the radar, influencing few.

This becomes all the more important when considered together with the cascade effects occurring on the blogosphere. Because of the increased number of individuals that are able to produce content, the odds of good ideas being created have increased. Because of the elevation efforts of the elite bloggers, the chances that those good ideas rise to the top have increased as well. When better ideas have better chances of surviving, they have a better chance of starting and maintaining cascades that spread that information. In addition, it is often through cascades that this kind of information becomes part of the national discussion.



Credibility cascades

The core principle of cascades is that “[p]eople frequently think and do what they think and do because of what they think relevant others think and do” [13]. People tend to agree with people whom they find “relevant’ — whether because of common group membership, shared opinions, similar background, or some other motivation for personal identification. These relationships create, drive, and sustain cascades, with the most influential people ostensibly the most persuasive and influential in a given cascade.


Figure 1
Figure 1


The previous, model of the “mass audience,” notably critiqued by Neuman (1991), holds that there is a small number of elites who influence the masses in a top–down, “two–step,” relationship (see Figure 1). These elites show up on TV and spread their ideas throughout the masses, changing opinions and spreading truths, mistruths, or something in between. Neuman and other mass media scholars [14] have complicated this relationship in important ways. For example, one study examined how, exactly, these elites influence public opinion. They found “it is generally the case that most social change is driven not by influentials but by easily influenced individuals influencing other easily influenced individuals” [15]. The top–down elite to masses model does not quite capture the entirety of the spread of ideas in modern society, not to mention the changes on this model brought about by the digital age.

While most elite blogs have the majority of the blog readership, the phenomenon discussed by Watts and Dodds can be used to pinpoint three ways that cascades are not top–down even in the political blogosphere. First, the majority of blogs still have a readership. Even if most blog audiences are not as large or influential as audiences of the elite blogs, those readers are still being influenced. The “network model of influentials” (see Figure 2) more accurately represents the dynamic in the blogosphere, and since individuals often are just as effective as elites in spreading ideas, ideas just need to be shared in order to have the potential to create a cascade. Because of the ease of blogging, and the above–mentioned chance that small bloggers have of being picked up by the elite bloggers, access to idea sharing has been spread far and wide. What happens next depends on a number of factors, including the number of readers, the amount of links and page views the individual post gets, and the post’s quality itself.


Figure 2
Figure 2: Network model of influentials
(Source: Watts and Dodds, 2007, p. 444).


Secondly, Watts and Dodds found that social change is driven by individuals, which means that the individuals who are reading the elite blogs are the ones most likely to drive social change, rather than the elite bloggers themselves. In other words, the elite blogs might start the social change by planting an idea in the mind of “easily influenced individuals,” but unless those individuals start influencing their admittedly small circles of friends (on personal blogs, on social media networks, or in person) who then influence their small circles of friends, the idea will not create social change. This model gives much more agency to the masses, who shift from being blindly following idea transmitters to more active idea filters. The political blogosphere is driven, then, not only by the elites but also by the individuals who filter the elites’ ideas to their readership. The ideas most acceptable to an individual will be passed on to that individual’s readers, and then will be passed on from there if the situation is right.

It is important to consider some significant ways that idea and reputation cascades are different in person than they are online. In the Asch experiments, for example, individuals were influenced by physically close peers. Also, reputation cascades happen when individuals who disagree with their peers do not express disagreement for fear of alienating that friend. This can still happen on a blog, but the fact is that it is much easier to express disagreement with a link than it is face–to–face. Not only is there more time to sort out one’s own thoughts, but there is also the ability to carefully phrase, double–check research, and bounce ideas off others before pressing “publish.” Part of the power of cascades is the timely pressure they put on participants — individuals have to decide, now, whether they will agree or disagree, and that pressure forces them to rely on the heuristics that power cascades. In the blogosphere, this pressure is largely removed, giving individuals more time to weigh what position they will take. This does not mean, by any stretch, that heuristics are no longer used, just that if they are used it is because of a more conscious and less pressure–induced choice.


Figure 3
Figure 3


Finally, Watts and Dodds’ “random group network model” (see Figure 3) suggests that cascades often take place through small groups of interested people. These groups, also called “publics” (Hauser, 2002), have their own dynamics, often having their own respected individuals who act as elites. These mini–elites are not influential throughout the entire public, but do hold significant sway within the particular group. This difference significantly alters the dynamics of cascades in a networked society.



Cascades and “second order” diversity

It is clear how cascades could be detrimental in the blogosphere: a justifiably marginalized opinion not based in fact can be repeated, rephrased, re–cited, recycled, and repeated again, becoming a significant story and influencing the political conversation of the media and of countless individuals. While this is the case for all media platforms, these echo chambers seem to be magnified by the speed and ease with which cascades take place on blogs. As demonstrated by the Asch experiments, if enough trusted individuals make an assertion, chances are that assertion will be repeated even if the individuals doing the repeating have good reason to believe it is false. Blogs give voice to any “trusted individual” who wants to make marginalized opinions seem mainstream, suggesting that these echo chambers are propagated even more in the blogosphere than they were in earlier communication media. This is the side of blogs and cascades that is most often discussed, disparaged, and feared.

There is another side, however, to the tendency of blogs to create and maintain cascades. It is the blogosphere’s ability to push issues to the forefront that the elite pundits do not. For many issues, it is quite likely that the elites simply do not notice, do not see the relevance, or are not allowed to comment on the story by their corporate owners. In these cases, the cascading nature of the blogosphere is an invaluable asset. As Meraz (2009) pointed out, the enormous sea of bloggers creates a rival for the traditional media conglomerates: “citizen media’s efficacy is in its aggregate effect, an effect which is able to blunt traditional media’s singular agenda setting effect” [16]. This aggregate effect is made possible only because of the cascade effect.

Blogs’ ability to push important issues into the public sphere makes them an important player in that sphere. In a society where entertainment programming pretends to be news, where partisans hide behind mantras like “fair and balanced,” and a reality TV star gains traction in a presidential primary, cascades of information are our last defense against the banality and ignorance that would muffle the public sphere. When the best ideas can gain traction among the already converted they have the best chance of spilling over and converting others. The dedication of the passionate is what has always overcome superficial distractions, and the blogosphere provides an opportunity for the passionate to organize and share their passion.

But banality is not the only threat to the public sphere. As noted above, Sunstein has been a vocal critic of the “Daily Me” he sees on the Internet. The blogosphere has made it easier than ever for individuals with narrow interests to connect with others sharing similarly narrow interests. This is a fantastic resource for those who begin cascades in the public’s interests, but Sunstein is worried about the accompanying ease it provides individuals to read what they already believe. The public sphere, in his view, is in danger of being muffled not by elite interests as much as minute interests that fracture the public into a thousand echo chambers, all assured of the absolute truth of their own position and the absolute folly of any other positions.

This represents the current tension in the blogosphere: on the one hand, blogs begin cascades that influence the agenda and reframe issues in important ways previously exclusively controlled by the established institutions [17]. On the other hand, blogs begin cascades that reinforce preexisting opinions and segregate the attention economy into special interest niches of passionate partisanship. Without the blogosphere, many important issues would be ignored or swept under the rug, but with the blogosphere, important discussions might never happen — why engage the opposition in dialogue or debate when they are so obviously ill–informed, ignorant, and/or nefarious?

An important distinction must be made here, however. There are at least two different ways to have a healthy public sphere. The first requires that people be exposed to multiple points of view, creating what Sunstein (2009) calls “first–order diversity.” This means, in the simplest instance, people would have to read conservatives and liberals, Krauthammer and Krugman [18]. While the Internet makes this easy, it is also rare (it is difficult to devote significant time/energy to reading something we already disagree with). This is the “Daily Me” that Sunstein feared, and the one that enables cascades of partisan self–congratulation that stifles debate before it ever starts.

The second option for a healthy sphere relies on what Garsten (2006) calls “messy public discourse” [19]. This discourse happens when on people who disagree with each other actually get together and engage with other opinions, creating what Sunstein’s (2009) “second–order diversity.” In this option, everyone does not have to read Krauthammer and Krugman, they could just read the one they already agree with. But then — and this is the most important part — they need to talk with someone who reads the other. This is difficult, because it involves acknowledging the intelligence and sincerity of those with whom we disagree (and braving the perils of engaging in political discussion with our political opponents), but overall this is often easier than having to read all opposing points of view. The Internet makes this second option much easier than it used to be, but at the same time makes it much easier to avoid political discussion if we want to. The public sphere, then, is healthy for the people who put forth even a little effort to participate in the public sphere. On the other hand, those who want to hold their own opinions and never have them challenged are also able to do so quite easily online.

This view of the public sphere is not groundbreaking. We have always needed to engage with opposing viewpoints. This need, however, becomes important when we consider what was discussed above regarding the characteristics of cascades in a digital age. Because of the influence that individuals can have in creating and maintaining cascades, the individuals who engage with other ideas will significantly alter cascades. First, the cascades will be better informed. Individuals who engage seriously with other ideas will be less likely to fall prey to superficial demonization of others, even those with whom they disagree, because they will have learned through engagement that this demonization was false. These interactions also open the door for future interactions, where good ideas can become better when they are examined and discussed by individuals with differing perspectives.

Second, an individual who engages with other ideas will be more involved in the political process, making the cascades more relevant, valuable, and important. In other words, engaged individuals will eschew the conspiracy theories that view the world as without nuance, a world where global warming is a fraud, aliens conspire with the government, and elected officials are simply finger puppets for a small handful of secret societies. Because they will be less likely to focus on the frivolously distracting, the focus will be devoted to the substantive issues that have real effect on the public at large.

Third, the cascades will spread more actively across rather than within publics. As discussed above, cascades often involve more complicated network relationships, where small groups of individuals influence individuals and other groups. The individual is no longer the sole player in the cascade, giving the individual even more potential to influence cascades. For example, if an individual is a member of one public and is able to converse intelligently with a member of a rival public, then when an important idea starts cascading it will be able to jump between publics through the respectful relationship. In other words, when even one individual is able to interact with a disagreeing individual in another group, the two groups are united enough to facilitate a cascade flowing through both of the groups. This suggests that the public sphere does not need to be made up solely of individuals who interact with opposing viewpoints, just that the public sphere requires that a few individuals engage in this activity. As was discovered in the Asch experiments, a single voice of reason can have a significant effect in stopping misinformation: Asch’s subject gave correct answers much more frequently in cases where even just one individual spoke out against the obviously false answer. Each public requires a few such individuals. The more individuals in a public engage in this behavior, of course, the more that particular public will have chance of influence, but even one or two meet the minimum requirements for a successful public sphere. The important thing is that there is engagement across publics.




The theory of cascades helps us understand the nature and effects of the political blogosphere. The traditional reputational and informational cascades are common occurrences in the political blog economy, occurrences that define the power this new economy introduces into the business of advocating and opinionating. Political cascades are driven by hyperlinks, credibility, and diversity, all of which bring new understanding to the role cascades play online.

The hyperlinking economy in political blogs is powered by competition, with the niche–specific blogs competing with the general interest intermediaries to provide the most relevant and timely information to the people most interested in that information. The hyperlinking economy also features a powerful elevation function, with the top–tier elite blogs promoting the best ideas and ignoring the low–quality ideas that are so often written in political blogs. This economy would not be possible without the wide access of the blogosphere, with barriers to entry being a few minutes, access to a computer and an Internet connection, and a good idea. Political blogs are also empowered by the chance for anyone to become an influential blogger. Not every blogger can necessarily begin a cascade of ideas, but cascades can be started by anyone — elite and non–elite alike. This opportunity increases the quality of these blogs by providing an opportunity for everyone to be involved in a substantial way.

The credibility of the poli–blogosphere comes not from top–down “elites” and “experts” who are given credibility by their past, but by networks of individuals who earn credibility because of their relationships and arguments. This credibility shapes and channels cascades from individual to individual and from group to group. As has been found in previous research, cascades can be started by elites and by non–elites alike, but can only be sustained when non–elites are actively engaged — elites can’t do it alone.

Overall, the theory of cascades demonstrates that the political blogosphere is not just adding echo chambers and stifling discussion. The political blogosphere is providing additional ways for good ideas to be recorded and shared, enabling certain kinds of discussion, spreading the responsibility and ability to engage in the marketplace of ideas, encouraging involvement, and providing the opportunity for the public sphere to thrive in the digital age.

Future examinations of the political blogosphere should move beyond the partisan linking practices that have been the focus of previous studies, and will take into consideration the effects of cascades. For example, future studies might track the influence of the blogosphere on political engagement, examine what factors must be present in order for meaningful discussion to take place on political blogs (remembering that not everyone need be involved in such discussion for it to be effective), examine characteristics of the most popular blog–induced cascades to identify trends in online political behavior, or compare disagreement among partisan blogs with disagreement across partisan lines to distinguish between different kinds of digital disagreement. The blogosphere is always changing — growing and adapting with new information, technology, platforms, and actors. As such, it is a phenomenon that should be monitored closely until the day it fades from importance on the political scene. And that day does not seem to be coming any time soon. End of article


About the author

Jeff Swift is a Ph.D. student in the Communicaton, Rhetoric & Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. His research interests focus on political and digital media, specifically political persuasion and the online public sphere.
E–mail: jswift8 [at] gmail [dot] com



1. Aaron Bady’s blog post is not the only instance of a non–elite blogger being promoted by more established elites, but it is one of the most recent and clear examples. While this paper is focused on the “cascading” dynamic itself, future studies are needed to examine how often this sort of dynamic actually occurs.

2. Sunstein, 2000, p. 82.

3. Sunstein, 2000, p. 83.

4. Ibid.

5. Asch, 1958; summarized in Sunstein, 2000, p. 79.

6. Ibid.

7. Meraz, 2009, p. 686.

8. Farrell and Drezner, 2007, p. 17.

9. Watts and Dodds, 2007, p. 445.

10. Farrell and Drezner, 2007, p. 22.

11. Farrell and Drezner, 2007, p. 19.

12. The impact of Bady’s post is evidenced by the high number of hyperlink referrals and page views, and the quality by its reception by those most knowledgeable on the subject: “The post exploring Assange’s philosophy and mission for WikiLeaks was quickly cited, excerpted and republished around the world by leading news and social media critics, journalists, policy wonks and even WikiLeaks’ Twitter feed” (Maclay, 2010).

13. Sunstein, 2000, p. 78.

14. While a summary of these is outside the scope of this paper, it is important to note that Watts and Dodds are by no means the first to critique the “mass audience” approach. For more on this and other “media effects” models of the audience, see Webster (1998).

15. Watts and Dodds, 2007, p. 442.

16. Meraz, 2009, p. 701.

17. Bloggers do not have the protection of institutional tenure that traditionally established “elite” enjoy — bloggers are at the mercy of the readers themselves. Whether the readers have the ability or intelligence to make these important decisions is outside the scope of this paper.

18. This reference to liberal and conservative sources is not meant to be a prescription but an analogy. There are multiple perspectives to every position, and many of the sides must be taken into consideration on any given issue.

19. Garsten, 2006, p. 211.



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Editorial history

Received 22 August 2011; revised 6 October 2011; accepted 28 October 2011.

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Cascades and the political blogosphere
by Jeff Swift.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 12 - 5 December 2011

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