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Political Networks

January 17, 2011

Online social networks are cool. That’s pretty well been established. We all know that they help us share pictures and jokes and help us keep in contact with our high school friend who now lives in Wisconsin. That’s nothing new. There is even some pretty exciting research on the way things spread from person to person online.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me when I learned that people are using social networks for other purposes, things I’d never considered. For example, after creating detailed maps of social networks, researchers can now predict the trajectory of illnesses like the flu. Similarly detailed maps are created and studied by the military, whose use of social networks helped them find Saddam Hussein. Social networks are about more than pictures of cute kittens and exotic vacations–tracking the way we interact with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers has significant impact in many areas of our lives.

So, what does this have to do with political rhetoric? Quite a bit. In December, David Brooks wrote about political social networks in The New York Times. He compared President Obama, and other liberals who tend to work across party lines, as “network liberals,” while uncompromising partisans are “cluster liberals”:

Cluster liberals (like cluster conservatives) view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity…Network liberals share the same goals and emerge from the same movement. But they tend to believe — the nation being as diverse as it is and the Constitution saying what it does — that politics is a complex jockeying of ideas and interests. They believe progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions.

Brooks was discussing elected officials, but the same analysis is relevant in the general public. There are many who feel most comfortable discussing politics with people with whom they tend to agree. The old adage “never discuss politics or religion in polite company” suggests that disagreement is bad. And indeed, it sometimes is, at least when it leads to shoutfests and Uncle Bernie storming off during Thanksgiving dinner.

But if rhetoric is the art of argument, and the political public sphere is driven by argument and deliberation, then the old adage is actually doing more harm than good. It’s less a truism and more a . . . falsism, because it stifles deliberation while attempting to suppress disagreement.

Rhetoric has just as much to do with our audience, this suggests, as it does with our arguments. If we only discuss politics with people who share our opinions, what kind of rhetoric are we practicing? We are no longer working to persuade or deliberate, but pat each other on the back. That key element of rhetoric–an audience with whom we disagree–is no longer part of the rhetorical equation.

This has interesting implications in our online social lives. We all have political social networks, many of which are online. We read a particularly compelling argument and send it to a couple of friends, post it to Facebook, share it on Twitter, promote it on Reddit, or whatever. We periodically are recipients of political arguments, as well, whether it’s one of those fantastic chain emails claiming President Obama is a Muslim or a link from Uncle Charles proving why Uncle Bernie was wrong to leave during Thanksgiving.

Using Brooks’ theory about network partisans and cluster partisans, we can learn a lot about our personal social networks. How many social networks include a diverse network of opinion, and how many are homogeneous clusters?

This phenomenon is easier to study online, where social networks can be traced empirically. Unfortunately, studies have suggested that the blogosphere, the twittersphere, and the Facebook-o-sphere are all too homogeneous. This is a potentially harmful by-product of the ease that the digital world has created for us to find people just like us.

Somewhere along the line, it seems, students of rhetoric should have an answer to this problem. When you come up with it, be sure to share it with your friends.

If you want to know more:

  • Matt Morain, a fellow student at NCSU, has presented work on the study of Internet memes through social networks. Check out his website for more on his research.
  • This NPR story is an interesting discussion of how the military is using social networks. Compelling in its implications, especially considering the latitude provided here at home by the Patriot Act.
  • Kenneth Burke’s term for the kind of rhetoric meant to create bonds rather than assent is “identification.” See his book, A Rhetoric of Motives, or this page of the KB Journal for more on this.
  • Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone has much to do with the decline of the political public sphere and our inability to disagree without being disagreeable.
  • Nancy Fraser’s analysis of the “actually existing public sphere” is particularly relevant to this discussion.

Jeff Swift is a first-year PhD student at North Carolina State University’s program in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media.

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