Influenced Through Our Own Accord
Do you recall the last time you sat down to read a newspaper or watch the evening news? If you are like me, you probably haven’t done either one in quite some time. Neither one of these two mediums are convenient. Instead, I rely on my phone to keep me up-to-date with the news. The Internet makes it easy to obtain the information I need when I need it. However, I’m left wondering — am I still getting the same information I would be getting through a newspaper or evening news? Does my tendency to rely on information from the Internet make me more susceptible to influence? I’ll answer these questions by analyzing my newsgathering routines.
I consider myself a well-informed member of society. I review Google News daily, typically frequent news websites like CNN, NPR — and, yes, occasionally even Fox News (it doesn’t hurt to read multiple viewpoints). Despite this, I can’t consume it all. Plus, many of the stories that have caught my interest are not those I discovered on these sites. Instead, I uncovered them through social media or in my inbox — usually from politically-informed friends.
So who exactly is sharing these news articles that catch my eye? Well, quite a few people. These include Shaun King, Ben Crump, Trevor Noah, Bernie Sanders, some co-workers, and a few friends. Although they all come from different walks of life, I hold them in high regard and respect their opinions.
This trend of obtaining news from opinion leaders is not new. The practice predates modern communication technologies and is an integral part of the Two-Step Flow Theory. According to this theory, the mass media is not the only one disseminating information to the masses. Public opinion leaders, who stay up-to-date with current events and news sources, also spread the news to their followers. In turn, followers look to these leaders as trusted sources of information.
Now, to answer the first question. Am I getting the same information I would through direct news sources? Probably not. That’s because opinion leaders act as filters. They sort through the news, decipher what is important to them, and share what they find worth sharing. Of course, that also means there is potential for bias in what they decide to share with their followers. It’s probably no surprise (given the people I mentioned above) that the news I consume through social media tends to focus on progressive, minority, or civil rights issues.
Does this mean I’m more susceptible to influence? In a way, yes. Depending on who shares the news story, I may believe it at first glance. However, I care to fact-check anything I read on social media. That’s because opinion leaders don’t just share the news — they also interpret it. Fact-checking can provide additional context or updates to news stories.
Unfortunately, not everyone takes the time to fact-check what they read online. The blame lies partly in mistrust of the mainstream media. Ironically, people also find social media news untrustworthy, yet they blindly follow what their trusted opinion leaders say on these platforms. Sometimes these opinion leaders amplify the problem of spreading misinformation and contribute to the problem of echo chambers. Joe Rogan serves as a modern-day example. He hosts one of the most popular podcasts with millions of followers. Unfortunately, he’s used his platform to spread misinformation regarding COVID-19, its treatment, and the vaccine. While his followers may trust him to provide accurate information, he’s doing them a harmful disservice.
I hope this explanation of the Two-Step Flow Theory can help make you aware of how much influence these opinion leaders can frankly have on us. But more importantly, it can remind us that we may also act as opinion leaders ourselves (albeit at a smaller scale). I usually share stories with my friends and family. They are very receptive to the information I send and often ask for my interpretation or take on things. Knowing this is a big responsibility, as I acknowledge that they trust and have confidence that I’ve done my due diligence and provided them with accurate information. So, next time you’re about to hit the share button, keep the Two-Step Flow theory in mind.