Many scholars have
investigated the potential for online communication to reinvigorate the
political public sphere (Connery, 1997; Benson, 1996; Abramson, Arterton & Orren, 1988).
Often, this work comes to focus on the central problem of politeness and its
role in either crafting or discouraging truly democratic dialogue. Zizi Papacharissi (2004), in
particular, makes a helpful distinction between “civility” and “politeness” to suggest
that, among other things, online political communication may often be
simultaneously impolite and civil, and that one ought not discount the
effectiveness of digital communication based on the fact of its often
sarcastic, inflammatory, or argumentative nature. Certainly, the Real
World Formula – whereby conflicting personalities are placed like
prize roosters into a kind of virtual social death match – has been aped
repeatedly not for its depiction of “reality” but rather for its dramatic
value. Does the removal of “politeness,” then, produce discussions and actions
that are more truthful or simply more entertaining?
The current paper uses these
discussions as a jumping off point for considering two sets of qualitative data
surrounding a common cultural product. The product is the most recent film by
director Oliver Stone, entitled W.
(2008), which portrays selected episodes of the life and presidency of George
W. Bush. The film was released on October 17 of an election year, during the
final months of its subject’s tenure, and into the apex of a particularly
emotional campaign cycle. In hopes of discovering what kind of audience
reaction such a document might engender, four focus groups were conducted in
Bush’s home state of Texas. At the same time, comments from several online
portals for user feedback were collected and analyzed. All data were collected
between the date of the film’s release and Election Day 2008 in order that the
study might provide a snapshot of popular reception of the film and its
attendant impact upon political speech and action.
One trend that has emerged
from the data is the enormous disparity in civility or politeness between
online posters, on the un-civil or impolite end of the spectrum, and
face-to-face focus group participants on the other. Although the full range of
traditional political viewpoints was represented in each of the focus groups
(several informants used words like “love” or “hate” to describe their feelings
for Bush prior to seeing the film), the tone of discussions was nonetheless
never truly argumentative. In fact, several participants expressed satisfaction
gained from the focus group experience specifically due to having “learned”
something from colleagues of different political stripe. Online comments,
however, were seldom discussions and, where there was any exchange, it was
generally combative, hostile, and often utilized stereotypical language.
Dahlgren (2005) has pointed
out that, when it comes to the relationship between communicators in the online
public sphere, “there must be some semblance of impact, some indication that
the political talk of citizens has consequences, or else disengagement and
cynicism can set in – as is precisely what many observers claim has been
a pattern for a decade or so in the mainstream, mass mediated systems of
political communication of the Western liberal democracies” (152-53). One might
argue that a fundamental example of the kind of consequence to which Dahlgren
alludes is that of being heard, or, rather more to the point, of being listened
to. Another example would be to reciprocate and listen to others. Below I ask whether
computer mediated communication (CMC), in the case under study, offers the
realization of this kind of “impact” in the way in-person discussions of the
same topic appear to do; that is, under the circumstances presented by a series
of “comments” boards online, does dialogue take place? If not, does this form
of “communication” have (constructive) consequences for political deliberation?
Moreover, I ask whether the defining characteristic of CMC is its
destabilization of identity, and whether that characteristic makes dialogue
more difficult (if not decreasingly possible). Finally, what, exactly, are “comments”?
How do they operate and are they worthy of a separate category, if only for
The data suggest that online
communication may indeed support a kind of chaotic speech freedom (polylogue), made all the more “authentic” by the removal of
identity barriers. On the other hand, however, face-to-face communication, even
where the particular text under study was emphatically personal to many
informants, resulted in a dialogic event. The study concludes, then, that what
is conspicuously absent from discussions of the democratic potential for online
communication is not the problem of civility so much as the problem of identity
and audience. The online sphere encourages a specific kind of language, one
that recognizes its own anonymous and therefore untouchable nature. It becomes,
in other words, a kind of monologue or one-way communication.
The Internet public sphere
This last statement will be
controversial. The general popular and academic refrain concerning the impact
of CMC upon political life is one of acclamation, an acclamation that, while it
has been tempered with an increasing scholarly ambivalence, results largely
from the participatory potential of online communication and its inherent
antagonism to the kind of limits imposed by the classical, bourgeois public
sphere. Moreover, proponents of CMC as a democratic tool will point out that
the venerable but ultimately politically erosive model of one-to-many
publishing and broadcasting is rightly giving way to a chaotic entanglement of
peer-to-peer communication in which central power structures become
increasingly obsolete. In the age of Huffington and Kos, Facebook
and Twitter, that is, communication occurs outside the parameters of the
institutional sender and popular receiver paradigm.
There are several
measurements by which we might strengthen such positions, especially with
regard to political communication. Several commentators have pointed out the
ways in which CMC has changed journalism practices and First Amendment law
(Bradshaw, 2008a, b; Dailey, Demo & Spillman,
2008; Frederickson, 2008; Henry, 2007; Kirtley, 2008;
Neal, 2007; Rector, 2008; Sweetser, 2007). These
changes are generally framed as challenging, but ultimately positive for the
ideal of democratic communication. The 2008 presidential election in the United
States has been extolled as that point at which “one-way media lost” their grip
on the public consumption of electoral news (Learmonth,
2008) and an indication that perhaps professional journalism’s place in the
election cycle ought to be reconsidered (Fiedler, 2008). The Pew report on “The
Internet and the 2008 Election” cites dramatic four-year increases in
online democratic participation, from watching online political videos, to
accessing campaign materials, to making online contributions to presidential
campaigns. Overall, according to Pew, the percentage of American adults who
look online for information about presidential campaigns has climbed from 16
percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2008. These shifts on the part of news
consumers toward CMC are echoed anecdotally by the ever-increasing list of
shuttered daily newspapers and the troubling bottom lines of network news
divisions. Similar trends have been observed outside the borders of the United
States in places such as South Korea (Kim & Johnson, 2006).
And what is it that attracts
the attention and imagination of the average online news consumer? Often, the
tendency is to think of online news media as a kind of amalgam of activity,
but, as Johnson and Kaye (2009) have helpfully pointed out, there are several
different kinds of participatory news portals, and not all are created equal.
Measuring credibility assumptions among users of online news resources, Johnson
and Kaye separated out several categories for specific analysis: “issue-oriented
Web sites, candidate Web sites, blogs, electronic mailing lists/bulletin boards
and chat rooms/instant messaging” (175). Of these, blogs were found to be the
research population’s preference in terms of their status as “believable, fair,
accurate and in depth” (ibid.). Indeed, blogging has become a popular object of
investigation, and rightly so. Imagined as an “authentic” space of
self-expression and dialogue, in reality it is rather more hybridized in its
agencies, an example of what Robert Glenn Howard (2008) has called the “vernacular
(2008) has pointed out the “problematic” nature of triumphalist
images of “the blogosphere as a deliberative space, as a model for an online (Habermasian) public sphere where every person is free to
air his or her views, thus making rational dialogue between equal status-free
participants in public debates possible” (371). He points out five phenomena
that call into question the participatory character of the Internet and blogs,
three of which exist at the structural/organizational level and two of which
exist at the level of the individual. In the former, Cammaerts
includes market forces, various sources of censorship, and “appropriation by
political (and cultural) elites” (361). All of these currently exist as a
reality, although the last is perhaps the most apparent. According to a 2006
survey of blog readers, 44 percent of respondents had household incomes over
$90,000 annually, 78 percent held an undergraduate degree or higher, and 82
percent hosted their own blog (Political blogs reader survey, 2006). In
addition, there is some indication that blogging may not offer material which
is all that oppositional to that available via traditional media outlets, and
vice versa (Messner & DiStaso,
2008). In Cammaerts’ latter category of individual
antagonists to online political participation, meanwhile, he includes social
control/online intimidation and the problem of “anti-publics” (369). The first refers to attacks upon
interlocutors known generally as “flaming,” while the second highlights the ability
of groups and individuals who hold views counter to those of democracy to use
participatory CMC channels for disseminating their message. While the current
study does not engage with blogs, per se, it is most concerned with these individual,
rather than structural, constraints upon truly democratic speech in the context
of participatory CMC. It is at the level of the individual that several
discourses germane to democratic articulation converge, and so the following
remarks interrogate the status of that individual in CMC, how it relates to the
individual embodied in face-to-face communication, and what the comparison of
these two manifestations of individuals and the talk in which they engage can
add to the ongoing discussion of CMC as an emancipatory channel for democratic
Publicity, identity, and the spiral of silence
While much of the criticism
and debate concerning Habermas’ central thesis on the
ideal nature of the modern public sphere focuses on the assumptions he makes
about who is included in such a sphere (Fraser, 1990; Negt
& Kluge, 1993), there exist parallel concerns about the character of the
talk-context. Even in an all-inclusive public sphere, that is – and the
latter is still a chimera, a hypothetical or a heuristic at best – there
remains the specter of unspoken power. Although Habermas
imagined the public sphere as a status-free zone of communication and debate,
the embodied relations of power inherent in discourses of patriarchy, wealth,
and education, among others, continue to cast shadows. The very notion of a “reasonable”
argument, for example, relies upon implicit, agreed upon definitions of “reasonable”
shared generally amongst the educated and the eloquent. Other forms of
argumentation (those relying upon emotional appeals, for example) are “othered” in such a context. As Slavko
Splichal (2006) attests, contemporary censorship “is
manifested in a variety of subtle ways in which different institutions enforce
or legitimate rules of public discourse, although they disavow their censorial
nature” (100). There also remain the banalities of intensity and verbal skill:
he or she who speaks loudest and most quickly is most likely to be heard. The
problem of identity, finally, has never been overcome in interpersonal or
mediated debate. Who someone is, after all, fundamentally impacts the degree to
which they are found credible, authoritative, or, on the other hand, personally
dangerous to a degree such that agreement is in one’s best interest.
One of the most influential
strains of theory regarding this phenomenon is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s
(1974) construction of the “spiral of silence”. In this work, Noelle-Neumann
engages with a “quasi-statistical picture of the distribution of opinions which
the individual gains from his social environment” (44) to construct of model of
echo chamber-like interactions between the actor and the social whole, such
that the more the actor encounters a “public” opinion oppositional to her own,
the less likely she is to voice her own opinion:
the opposite opinion, or acting in public accordingly, incurs the danger of
isolation. In other words, public opinion can be described as the dominating opinion which compels compliance of attitude and behavior in
that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation, the politician with
loss of popular support. Thus the active role of starting a process of public
opinion formation is reserved to the one who does not allow himself
[sic] to be threatened with isolation. (ibid)
Her methodology, famously
and steadily tested and critiqued (Hayes, 2007; Moreno-Riano,
2002; Neuwirth, 2000; Salmon & Kline, 1983),
involved asking her respondents to imagine an in-person encounter on a train
(always a comfortable place to begin with) in which they were asked for their
opinion on controversial issues. The results suggested, of course, that media
were of particular importance in creating the assumed “majority” opinion, thus
acting upon the individual’s own opinion formation and/or expression. Implicit,
however, in the study, was the role of interpersonal communication and dialogic
strategies (what Goffman  has called “face” in
another context) in substantiating such mediatized
discourses of opinion. In a group of like-minded anarchists, that is, we
continue to talk like anarchists regardless of what the media might say. It is
only in the context of interpersonal communication – where identity and
civility (or politeness) come into play – that mediated discourse of normativity become reified. The threat of isolation, after
all, comes not from the media, but from those with whom we associate.
Be that as it may,
Noelle-Neumann’s thesis sparked an entire school of thought regarding the
influence of media institutions and products upon the individual too lengthy to
recapitulate here (see Salmon & Glynn, 1996 for a helpful review). I engage
with spiral of silence theory here primarily to point out its similarity to
critiques leveled against Habermas’ bourgeois public
sphere. In the latter, certain civic populations and “unreasonable” debate
strategies are excluded from what claims to be an all-inclusive exercise.
Despite the idealized removal of status and identity, meanwhile, both of these
markers remain (how could they not?) when we partake in corporeal communication.
In the situation analyzed by Noelle-Neumann and those who have come since,
identity remains a key problem. What do we have to fear, after all, from a
negative interpersonal experience if “who we are” is not available information?
It is only because of our concern over our “reputations” – a correlative
but not identical term to “identity” – that we censor ourselves.
Thus is it was that the
Internet quickly became a solution to the problem of identity. If, after all,
we could shed the risk associated with attaching our reputation to our public
statements, wouldn’t then self-censorship evaporate? One finds little aversion
to isolation when it is, finally, not oneself, but one’s “avatar” (a term I use
here generically to denote an Internet identity rather than the more specific
connotation of a constructed, virtual “body”) who is
put at risk. Thus, the thesis has generally been formulated, the spiral of
silence and other chilling effects upon speech related to identity might be
subverted by a changeable environment replete with opportunities for fluid
identities, multiple publics and platforms, and a lack of centralized
Identity, trust and authenticity
For centuries, despite the
problems posed by structuralist and post-structuralist theory (Barthes, 1977;
Foucault, 1984), identity has remained a cornerstone of public deliberation.
Framed as authorship, solidified by the signature, identity has been
fundamental to, among other things, the Byzantine legislation surrounding
public communication. Copyright, obviously, is an example of this relationship
between information, identity, and power (Coombes,
1998) which faces erosion in the era of CMC, and, more recently, the protection
of public speech rights has been threatened in the United States by a growing
unease among reticent members of the judicial branch with the status of “ungovernable
bloggers” who hide “behind the anonymity that the Web permits” (Kirtley, 2008, 54). Despite the fact that, so far,
according to Frederickson (2008), free speech law is evolving in favor of
anonymous public speech, the number of complaints against it is on the rise.
Part of this due to the overarching ideals of publicity as expressed by Habermas, which, as Jodi Dean (2001, engaging with Bentham)
points out, emerge from the historical condition of secrecy: “Publicity holds
out he promise of a revelation, the lure of the secret” (632). In other words,
public discourse emerges as the expression of a public certainty that power
possesses knowledge and will, when interrogated, give it up. This, ultimately,
is a posture of belief. The author, the signatory, the credentialed all offer
publicity a reason to trust the very institutions it constantly interrogates in
search of the secret. Anonymity, then, is a destabilizing force in this
we return to the idealized rhetoric surrounding CMC as a transcending of the
power relationships inherent in a source-receiver broadcasting model, we can
see that the problems posed by changes in regimes of identity and anonymity
open up new opportunities for power to operate. Institutional efforts at
advertising and public relations have cottoned on quickly to the potential for
social and interactive CMC environments for more effective message control (Bulik, 2008). Media commentators wring their hands in worry
over whether or not children can discern between content and advertising in televisual production, and yet consumers of CMC content
find themselves in a similarly precarious position. Identity, and our knowledge
of it, gives us as audiences a crucial implement in the media literacy arsenal.
How does one know that one’s interlocutor online is or is not a sales person, a
spin doctor, or a well-compensated, professional partisan hack, all of whom can
and do feign informality in their writing to pose as “regular” people? The
result is that novel contestations emerge in the consideration of that most
venerable of mass communication terms, “source”. Sundar
and Nass (2001, pp. 58-59) offer a helpful typology
of sources in the CMC era: first, “visible sources,” or gatekeepers, “which are
seen by the receiver to be delivering the message or content” and are evaluated
in terms of credibility; second, “technological sources,” or the media or
channels which transmit the content; and third, “receiver sources,” which are
made up, on the one hand, by “self as source,” and, on the other, by “audience
as source.” The first of these represents the receiver at the individual level,
while the latter represents the individual at the collective level. While it
could be argued that self-selection of media material predates CMC, certainly
the last of these three categories is substantially bolstered by the
participatory potential of Web technology. As the authors state, “the onus is
now upon the receiver to actively sift through content and select a portion of
it for consumption. That is, the receiver becomes the source, albeit only a
selecting one” (59). In both
manifestations of receiver sources, then, the trust bestowed by the receiver is
no longer upon institutions but rather upon other receivers, which, as the
authors point out, suggests support for a “bandwagon effect” thesis. The
qualification for determining the reliability of a piece of information becomes
its frequency of having been determined reliable (the Wiki model) rather than
its determination as reliable by institutional authorities. One wonders what
such a situation adds to public discourse when, as a strategy employed so as to
avoid being duped by disingenuous online commentators, we follow the crowd.
this decentralization of information evaluation and decoupling of the utterance
from its author is, at its heart, illustrative of a redefinition of trust. As Keiron O’Hara (2004) points out, this is a problem
considered as far back as Socrates, who felt that writing, by separating in
time and space the idea and its author, de-authenticates the experience of
Socrates…is arguing that the written word cannot be trusted.
It may say the wrong thing, to the wrong people. It may mislead, there is
little possibility of putting matters right. Socrates lays great store by presence.
If he is present whenever his philosophy is expounded, then he remains in
control; he can present his ideas in the best light, tailor their presentation
to the audience, deny certain people access to them, and evolve them in the
light of new information or circumstances. (82, emphasis in original)
Implicit in O’Hara’s
formulation of Socrates’ ideal of presence is a critique of his exclusionary
configuration of the public. At the same time, however, this ideal of presence
is one that allows trust in the communicative event through attribution. Thus,
even as the public sphere, as it has been considered from antiquity through the
Enlightenment, provides avenues for the retention of power positions, it
simultaneously argues for an authenticity based on trust. The knotty problem of
trust in communication remains an issue today. CMC’s ascent as a (the?) major
player in democratic and political communication has been effected (especially
in the case of blogs) by a festering distrust of what are generally referred to
as the “mainstream media” (Hamdy & Mobarak, 2004; Kaye, 2005; Seipp,
2002). Meanwhile, Pew reports that 60 percent of its respondents in 2008 felt
that “the internet is full of misinformation and propaganda that too many
voters believe is accurate” (p. iv), and Flanagan and Metzger (2007) conclude
that Internet users are “skeptical of web-based information, know they should
verify the information they get online, and yet fail to do so” (334). Even if
they did verify this information, if the bloggerati
are to be believed, the traditional sources of “objective” information would
offer no good avenue for doing so. Is the individual seeking reliable
information simply adrift? Is that
the ideal suggested by imploding face-to-face communication as power-inflected,
exclusionary, and, therefore, invalid as a form of democracy? Given that trust
in online communication is largely untenable, it seems unsurprising that much
of what people find online is contributory simply to reinforcement via
likeminded communicators or cynicism. A recent study (Zhang, Johnson, Seltzer
& Bichard, 2008) investigating the relationship
between social networking media, social capital and political participation concluded that “to stimulate civic and political
participation, we need to focus on encouraging more interpersonal discussion
about politics” (24).
Identity and trust in interpersonal communication
The lauding of the eclipse
of the problem of the interpersonal encounter may be premature, or at least not
terribly well considered. We might consider just what exactly is gained and
what is lost. In the move to virtual democracy, we lose, prima facie, the
influence of status upon the dialogic event. This is, as far as it goes,
unquestionably a move toward the emancipation of voices of alterity (Coombes, 1998). But just as soon as we shed the discursive
advantages of identity (the authorial position) we don the new discursive
advantage of opacity. The problem of opacity/transparency is summarized nicely
in Georgia Born’s discussion of the “audit”: “The logic of audit means
that auditing itself comes to be audited; the phenomenon is recursive and
self-reinforcing. The only thing that cannot be queried is the rationality of
audit itself. Auditing claims to deliver an ideal of transparency in
organizations [sic]; yet the audit process itself is opaque, closed to
scrutiny.” Note the circle here. Transparency in institutions and processes
necessitates publicization of the authorial position.
Even as we leave behind the transparency
that an identity provides (as author, as journalist, as professional) – a
transparency that is often deleterious to the search for “truth,” since “transparency
can encourage people to be less honest, so increasing deception and reducing
reasons for trust” (O’Neill, 2002) – we must contend with a radical
uncertainty which, unlike the uncertainty occasioned by the “evasive and
uninformative statements” (ibid.) of embodied, cautious transparency, has at
last no anchor whatsoever.
then…positions are often maintained in the face of widely available and
well-authenticated contrary evidence…Proponents of views…may not heed available
evidence and can mount loud and assertive campaigns for or against one or
another position whether the available evidence goes for or against their
views. As the quantity of (mis)information available rises, as the number of bodies with
self-conferred credentials and missions and active publicity machines
increases, as the difficulty of knowing whether a well-publicised
(sic) claim is a credible claim increases, it is simply harder to place trust
reasonably. Milton asked rhetorically, “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in
a free and open encounter?”. Today the very prospect of a ‘free and open
encounter’ is drowning in the supposedly transparent world of the new
information order. (ibid)
The advantage, that is, that
systems of verification (e.g. professional
organizations, peer-review, credentials) offer is a method for extending trust
beyond face-to-face relationships.
was critiqued solidly, as we have seen, by Noelle-Neumann’s thesis. A problem
with Noelle-Neumann’s theory, however, is the assumptions made about “silence”
as a negation of participation. Recently, several studies on “lurking” behavior
online have concluded that silence (as lurking), rather than representing a
response to a repressive social opinion climate, is a valid and variegated form
of participation (Nonnecke & Preece,
1999; Preece, Nonnecke
& Andrews, 2004; Rafaeli, Ravid
& Soroka, 2004; van Uden-Kraan,
et al., 2008). What, then, do these findings suggest about the interpersonal
encounter? The focus on silence as an indicator of one’s subjugation at the
hands of verbose (and therefore powerful) group members ascribes an ad-hoc
victim or follower status to those who do not speak. Paul Reynolds (1984) has
critiqued this move as an implicit assent to the “blabbermouth theory of
leadership” (405). The focus on silence as a retreat in Noelle-Neumann also
discounts the importance of listening as a rhetorical strategy.
Research on participation in
specifically political discussion groups has shown variable results. Price, Capella, and Nir (2002) created
an experiment by which respondents were asked to state opinions on political
matters and found that “encountering disagreement in political conversation”
(which the researchers manufactured rather than observed in a live dialogic
event) “contributes to more deliberative opinion“ or “the ability to ground one’s
viewpoints, not only in supportive arguments but also in an understanding of
the kinds of arguments that others might make in taking an opposite stand”
(107). Similarly, Gastil and Dillard (1999) found
that the political deliberation undertaken by their subject population “had at
least a short-term effect on the sophistication of participants’ schematic
networks. After forums, participants had more differentiated and integrated
views, and they exhibited less attitudinal uncertainty” (20). Brundidge (2008,
2006), on the other hand, has found that some Internet political discussion
contributes positively to ideological heterogeneity. In Brundidge’s work, “chat and instant messaging were
positively predictive” of such heterogeneity, but “political discussion via
website bulletin boards and political discussion via email were not”. She
postulates that discrepancy is due to the fact that “chat and instant messaging…may
be the type of computer-mediated communication most like face-to-face
discussion, the strongest predictor of exposure to political difference” (2006,
p. 18). This is due, as Brundidge points out, to the “synchronous” nature of
these communications, occurring in real time and subject to immediate feedback
(albeit a feedback mediated via the screen). In a similar vein, Mutz and Mondak (2006) found the
workplace to be an arena where, unlike a church or a social group, one is
forced to communicate with an unexpected variety of people and their attendant
backgrounds and beliefs. The result is that such a context creates
opportunities for the exposure to and appreciation of countervailing
socio-political points of view. Workplaces are, in this way, a kind of
synthetic environment populated by individuals with whom we might not otherwise
engage in dialogue. These observations help describe the situation presented by
the focus group. The latter occurs generally among disparate individuals in
real time rather than, as is often the case in church or online, either among
like-minded others or over an extended time period in which an individual posts
a comment and either waits or remains uninterested in a response.
monologue: Comparing online and focus group political speech
Both online and in-person
political communication, then, offer challenges to the ideal of democratic
dialogue. This study began as an inquiry into public reception of a film text,
but the data collected suggested a striking dissimilarity in the tone, the strategies,
and the outcomes of electronic versus corporeal discussion. By using the common
object of a popular film to explore the differences between these two data
sets, this study does not intend to suggest an experimental design whereby the
film acts as a standard stimulus presented to subject populations. Rather, then
data engaged herein are analyzed in a spirit of exploration, context and
particularity, and the trends suggested by them are then applied to the
problems discussed above. This is a mode of analysis termed “grounded theory”
(Glaser and Strauss, 1967), whereby the investigator allows the data to suggest
avenues for analysis and fruitful areas of discovery.
Data for this study were
collected under two conditions. The first was focus group interviews. Focus
groups participants (n=21) were selected via convenience and snowball sampling
(Lindlof, 1995) and were made up of undergraduate
students and community members within the vicinity of a major Southwestern U.S.
university town. Focus groups lasted approximately 90 minutes and participants
were compensated for their time by way of a cash payment. Focus group data were
collected over roughly two weeks in late October and early November of 2008.
The film’s October 17, 2008 release date in the U.S. precluded any audience
engagement prior to that time. Since the study was designed to engage with
audiences prior to Election Day 2008, so as to maximize the potential for
understanding W.’s impact at a very particular time (which, of course, is how
it was imagined as a media product), the window for data collection closed on 4
Focus group question
schedules were designed to offer avenues for further discovery during the
course of the group discussion. Questions were open-ended and followed an outline
that navigated groups through several categories of questioning. Participants
were asked about their self-appraisals in terms of their consumption of cinema
and political content, and were also engaged on the topic of their appraisal of
the film’s director, Oliver Stone, and their expectations for the film prior to
seeing it. Participants were then asked to evaluate the film in their own
terms, with particular emphasis on their feelings regarding the film’s accuracy
and its representation of their home state. Groups and interviewees were then
asked to evaluate the film in terms of its context as a cultural document, with
emphasis on its status as a cinematic biography of a sitting president and its
release date. The next group of questions engaged with the participants’
political behavior and their interest in or activity around the upcoming
election. Subjects were enjoined, finally, to discuss the degree to which the
film either motivated further political behavior (campaigning, blogging, etc.)
or impacted their likelihood to cast a vote.
The second data set was
composed of online “comments,” a category of CMC political speech that –
despite its utility and ubiquity as a feature on the Web sites of several
mainstream media outlets that states, “We are listening to you” – appears
to remain untheorized. These
comments were appended by non-professionals to materials produced for public
consumption by major online outlets. Such online speech acts do not fall
under the headings of discussion boards, electronic mailing lists, or Wikis.
They arise in response to a posted media product and do not rely on a
consistent membership within the community. Posters do not establish threads
but rather pile comments atop one another. They offer no avenues toward
establishing RSS feeds or other automatic correspondence services. There is
minimal information harvested on the poster (although this varies from site to
site), but one is required to include one’s email address. They share some
characteristics with discussion boards in that the comments are generally
moderated and posters are given screen names. The comments do not occur
synchronously, as they do in a chat forum, but rather sequentially (and can
often be organized by the reader by their date and time of posting, rating, or
Nor do comments fall
exclusively into a single category within the taxonomy of “sectors of Net-based
public spheres” outlined by Dahlgren (2005, p. 153, italics in original), who
describes five structural forms in which online political communication takes
place. These include, first, both top-down and horizontal versions of “e-government”;
second, the “advocacy/activist domain,” including “traditional parliamentarian
politics, established corporate and other organized group politics (e.g.,
unions), and the new politics of social movements and other activists”; third,
the “vast array of civic forums…generally understood as the paradigmatic
version of the public sphere on the Net”; fourth, the “prepolitical
or parapolitical domain, which airs social and
cultural topics having to do with common interests and/or collective
identities; and, finally, the journalism domain, which includes all elements of
the vast online journalistic universe. Comments could be considered key components
of each of the last three of the above categories, but it is less important to
pin them down into a descriptive category, it seems, than it is to understand
their rhetorical function and their attendant impact upon online political
In this case, comments were
captured from six online sources: ABCNews.com,
and the Internet
Movie Database. Given the above numbers suggesting the skewed nature of
blog readership in socio-economic and other categories, these online media were
chosen – rather than Huffington or Daily Kos – with an eye toward
mainstream news outlets, including one which is generally described as
left-leaning (MSNBC.com) and its conservative counterpart (FoxNews.com).
Imdb.com was chosen in response to the study’s initial interest in popular
reception of the film as a text, rather than as an instigator of political
speech more generally. Due to earlier screenings in other parts of the country,
comments on the film were available earlier than its opening date in the
location of the focus groups, so the timeframe for comment collection began
earlier but concluded (as did the focus groups) prior to Election Day in the
United States (4 November 2008).
Focus groups were videotaped
and then transcribed. These transcriptions and all collected online comments
were then loaded into the NVivo qualitative data
analysis software, where all entries were coded in terms of both substance and
form (that is, what the participants/commenters
talked about and the manner in which they talked about it). The resulting codes
were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Clark, 2004; Glaser and
Strauss, 1967), whereby trends and patterns derived from code placement and
correspondence were continuously reevaluated as new information became
available. Thus the following modes of analysis (polylogue,
monologue, and dialogue) emerged from the data rather than being applied a
priori to it.
These three categories of
talk are defined herein as follows. “Polylogue”
refers to those exchanges where interlocutors refer to one another in such a
way as to engage specifically, but in the end simply talk past one another. This amounts to an exchange of statements from which emerges
no new understanding, and often such exchanges, as we shall see, devolve into
shouting matches. “Monologue” refers to those statements that are not meant for
any particular individual but rather are offered purely as ends in themselves.
The reason for offering a monologous statement is
simply to express it. “Dialogue,” finally, I define here as an engagement
between two or more interlocutors in which greater understanding of the others’
beliefs or positions is either sought or obtained. These definitions are
offered as heuristic tools limited for use in this paper, not as concepts that
should be understood as universals.
Consider the following
exchanges, each of which was culled from online comment boards:
bOludo and cdfoxtrot4
by b0ludo at 9:54 PM, Oct 26, 2008): Bush is like the rest of middle America. The one you all seem to love bashing. Loves
God, loves his heterosexual family, and you''ll take
his gun from his dead cold hand. That is the November surprise nobody is
by cdfoxtrot4 at 10:16 PM, Oct 26, 2008): Bush is like the rest of middle America. Blah, blah, blah.
(Posted by B0ludo): Except that Bush is NOT from middle America. He was born
into an extremely wealthy, powerful family. His dad was president, and his grand-daddy was a senior political figure. He can trace his
heritage to English royalty. He''s NOT from middle America. It''s the idiots
who think he''s one of them and voted as such, that
are responsible for the moron-in-chief having eight years to f_uck everything up.
mickey and Darren
by mickey at 5:22PM, Fri, Oct 17, 2008): As someone
who is a born again christian,
I find George W. Bush uses christianity to excuse
what he does. I doubt he truely knows the Lord as his
by Darren at 6:21PM, Fri, Oct 17, 2008):
As an Atheist living in a free country with a supposed seperation of chruch and state, I
don't want to hear your religious BULL CRAP.
by Riza-13, Oct 18): Okay, listen up. George Bush may have made many mistakes
during his Presidency, but he did NOT KILL Americans!!!! That is such BS!!! He
PROTECTED this great country and stood up to the evil terrorists that in NO WAY
want to cooperate with us, and that is something NO DEMOCRAT COULD HAVE DONE,
especially those morons Al "Let's-All-Give-Terrorists-Hugs" Gore and
John "Hollywood-Is-Better" Kerry. 9-11 came as a direct result of the
CLINTON Presidency because he FAILED to act on all the terrorist attacks that
happened in the 90's!Whether or not we agree with Bush on everything he did (I
don't), whether we're conservative or liberal, we should all be indebted to
this man for at least one thing: KEEPING AMERICA SAFE!!!Hate Bush all you want, but DON'T call him a killer.
(And please, take a grammar lesson, ya'll).You people,
and Oliver Stone especially, should be ashamed.
by misskizzy, Oct-18): To Riza13...what rock do
you live under? Of course Bush is responsible for killing over 4, 000
Americans...troops that is..in
the Iraq war, which he started and sold to the American people with a bunch of
lies. America is not safer..more
people hate America now than 8 years ago... wake up!
and an unknown poster to whom he/she responds
by: MCP12346 Oct-18): "Not the Demo-craps" Wow that is so
mature... I could say Repugni-cun* but then I would
stoop to your beer drinking cocaine sniffing frat boy level. Bill Clinton lied
about receiving a ####... George Bush lied about a war which
has cost 10's of thousands of lives and never needed to happen in the first
place. Sure... blame it on Clinton when Bush himself had warning several days
before 9/11 and still did nothing. Don't you remember
"bin laden determined to attack United States". Ummm
Katrina and the current economic disaster happened on the current Presidents
watch... if he was such a seer and had god on his side then why weren't these
things fixed before they happened? Well as far as Katrina it is because he
placed unqualified political friends in charge of FEMA.Yes
we may all be dead before anything is fixed... because you republicans have run
up 5 trillion in additional national debt and have just added a $ 400+ billion
dollar deficit with the last budget. It's kind of hard to find the money when
you socialist pinko corporate welfare republicans
blew it all paying off Wall Street because they lost so much money due to your
deregulation policies.P.S. Go sniff around Hannity and Faux news... its where people like you
What similarities can we
divine from these representative examples of polylogous
online speech? They are each arguments that neither seek nor find any kind of
resolution, even in cases where (as with mickey and
Darren) they do not necessarily offer opposite viewpoints. They are analogous
to two drivers angrily tooting their horns in passing. They are decidedly
uncivil and impolite, resorting to inflammatory and insulting language. They
utilize received public scripts about responsible information consumption, a
variation on what have been called “accounts of the media” (Hoover, Clark and
Alters, 2004), and critiques of the mainstream media.
where the exchanges are significantly more developed, their result in terms of
meaningful communication remains negligible at best. Consider Mark and Jane,
posters who engaged in a lengthy discussion beginning with Jane’s dismissal of
(Sun, Oct 19, 08 at 12:25 AM): This movie gets an "F"
. Oliver Stone is a whiny, liberal **** bag trying to push his
narrow-minded beliefs down the throats of America.. yet again. You want to know why Batman was a success? Because it wasn't politically driven. It was a movie that
was about Good vs. Evil. The Good is G W Bush.. The
evil is Oliver Stone, and all the other mindless media pawns out there believing this ****.
Jane then begins attacking
posts further down the list.
(12:36 AM): Debra--Katrina.. is
how it's spelled. Your first mistake. That wasn't
Bush's fault. You can thank the LIBERAL Mayor Nagin
didn't do crap, and Governor Kathleen Blanco. Get your facts straight. Bush
reached out with FEMA 3 times, and they didn't want the help. Dang, you are
clearly a media lemming. Girl, you are stuck on stupid to accuse Bush of that. The BAIL OUT? WTH!? That was
because of the Clinton admin. with Fannie Mae. DUH.
They MADE banks give loans to people that couldn't afford to pay.
Jane Sun (Oct 19, 08 at 12:29 AM): Get the message, Hollywood... We don't care about your liberal agenda driven
crap job movies like W and Charlie Wilson's War. George W Bush is the President
of the US. Deal with it, and we kicked your butt in 2 elections with this guy.
Why? Because we think, therefore, we are conservatives. And, well.. Because we CAN! And we will again! Show some respect.
Make movies about what people WANT to see. Ha, ha, it is bombing at the box
office, and people compare it to a LAME SNL sketch...
(12:39 AM): The liberation of Iraq is a good thing. Bush did that. He cut taxes, and we
haven't been attacked since 9/11. His moral character should never be in
question when you liberals have Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy to answer for.. PUHLEASE! Ted killed a woman, and Bill is a womanizing,
liar. G W Bush is a Christian, and he is an honorable man of God. The reason
why people like Oliver Stone and the liberal media hate him so, is simple
put-darkness hates LIGHT. They hate good.
Mark enters the conversation
by way of interjection.
(12:41 AM): Jane, You are full of hate and horribly misguided.
[still taking issue with an earlier comment by “Twist”] (12:45 AM): To TWIST: George W Bush is not a bigot. He is the first to put African
Americans in a high ranking office. Hello Condelezza Rice, and Colin Powell. I didn't see Bill do
that.. Or Carter... Or ANY supposed
"open minded" liberal. He will not burn in hell,
he is a child of the most high God. Jesus Christ. And, you don't know his
heart, I would say YOU are the bigot, TWIST.. Not
George W Bush.
(12:48 AM): Mark, no I am not full of hate. I am sick of the liberal media ramming
outright lies down our throats. What Oliver Stone was full of hate and misguided. And I laugh at the box office numbers thus far.. That is what you get, Ollie!
(12:53 AM): Yes, Jane. It's called hate, and you're a poster child for angry, uninformed
knee-jerk know-nothing who seems to be afraid of matters you never learned how
to think about.
(12:57 AM):Also, Jane, I can't wait to read your review of Religulous, if you have the internal fortitude to go see
(1:02 AM): Mark, obviously, I know more than you do. :-)
(1:02 AM): Jane, you're just wrong. Go to bed.
(1:03 AM): "Facts are stubborn things"--Ronald Reagan. I go by facts. You go by
hear say by the liberal media. I would say you are the know nothing
(1:04 AM): Isn't it time for your binky?
(1:05 AM): Jane, I have a college student who thinks just like you, and he is failing
because he is a self-professed expert in matters he knows nothing about. In
politics and religion, I doubt you've ever met a truth that really
(1:10 AM): I know that George W Bush is a leader. He had guts. He is a genius when it
comes to action. He protected this nation from another attack. I know that you
have no earthly idea who I AM. And for you to judge me by a couple of posts
that you happen to not agree with is very arrogant and rather judgmental. Your
son is probably failing because colleges are filled with liberal minded
professors trying to mold naive minds like their own.
(1:13 AM): It's not my son. I teach. It's my job to help people think
independently, and you are surely one in need of critical thinking skills. Bush
is a failure, always has been, always will be. Did you learn nothing while
watching the movie, or were you just shallow enough to form illogical conslusions?
(1:15 AM): Why don't you go see American Carole?
You suggested Religulous...Which
was ridiculous. Of course there will be hatred in all sorts of religions. What
makes you think that his assessment is TRUTH? It's satire. Do you not get that?
I know Bill Mahr is an odd fellow that tries to be
outrageous, but truth be told, he is just an ugly little man that people laugh
at from time to time.. Notice LAUGH AT.. Not with. Unless, you too, are an ugly
(1:19 AM): I see both sides. I tend to go to the right more. Why? Because I
don't feel like I should have to support everyone and their mama because I
excel. Why should I be punished and "share the wealth" to Betty Sue
down the street that wants to sit on her butt and pop out kids for a check? I
think the less government, the better. I don't want others deciding what to do
with MY hard earned money. I got a job, I go to work. Do you ever wonder why republicans aren't
protesting? Because WE have jobs!
(1:22 AM): Jane, Your ignorance is showing again. Like Democrats don't have
jobs? Your arrogance is also showing since you have no idea why poverty and all
its consequences exists.
(1:22 AM): Did you ever think that maybe YOU are the one that thinks he knows it all?
That you are so right? You called me "wrong"..
What is wrong with my opinion? You liberals want to dictate everything, I tell ya. I feel that I am right. You disagree. Doesn't make YOU
right. Just means we have differing opinions.
(1:25 AM): Well, if they have jobs, why are they protesting? Why aren't
they outraged by Obama wanting to raise taxes and we are in a
"recession"..? Hmmmmmm.. Strange, huh? What about ACORN and the voter fraud going
on there? Obama gave them money. Did you know that? My ignorance
.. ha, more like your lack of recognizing the
(1:25 AM): Jane, I'm the first one to say there are a lot more things I do not know that
I do know. I'm just saying with respect to you, I've seen your limited thinking
and false conslusions in many people over the years.
Sure, you're entitled to your opinions, but please don't present them as
(1:29 AM): I've grown tired of replying to you, Jane. You think you know things. You
don't. One day you'll awake and wonder why you never got it.
(1:29 AM): Anyone can go and work at McDonalds and work their way up. There are plenty of
opportunities for anyone to excel. Perhaps you are confusing laziness with real
poverty. People in dire need of help, we have mission centers, outreach programs, we have all sorts of organizations to get anyone
that wants help the help they need. There is no excuse, but the life they have
chosen. Like the song goes "That one is only poor Only if they choose to
be".. So true.
(1:32 AM): My opinions on how someone looks are just opinions. The Clinton
Administration was the cause of the fall of Fannie Mae. That is a fact. Bush
did extend FEMA three times to Louisiana during Katrina. That is a fact. It is
a fact that both Nagin and Blanco no longer hold
their offices because of their lack of inaction. That had NOTHING to do with
Bush. It is also a fact that we have liberated Iraq. And we haven't been
attacked since 9/11.
(1:35 AM): Grown tired= liberal lingo for-- I am frustrated that I can't
make you think like me. Present them as facts? They ARE facts. Why are you so
animate about facts when you listen to the liberal media? They lie every day.. every second of the
(1:36 AM): Now you think you know what I listen to. You don't. You're just
wrong. Dead wrong.
(1:40 AM): Oh, I am sorry, you also listen to Hollywood libtards
like Stone... I forgot about that. If he is the measure as to what you stand
for, I really feel sorry for you and your students. You are perverting young
minds to think like your own.
(1:41 AM): Jane, Your lack of critical thinking skills is coming across loud and
(1:46 AM): And all you can do is say "you are wrong"... LOL. Your lack of
debating skills shows me that YOU have no idea what you are talking about, and
all you do is call the other person "wrong" without any tangible
talking points. What next? Are you going to call me a "meanie"
or TRY to throw a pie at me like they did to Ann Coulter?
(1:49 AM): Wrong people hate to be called wrong. I wouldn't waste a pie on
you, although I enjoyed it when the Yippies years ago
pied Kissenger and other warmongers. You mention Ann
Coulter? Now I know you're shallow and empty of any useful knowledge.
(1:51 AM): Ann Coulter could run circles around you. The lady is highly
intelligent, I doubt that is a requirement to attend one of your
(1:53 AM): You like to attack on a personal level. Ann Coulter couldn't walk around a
block around me. I've always wondered about "her" Adam's
(2:00 AM): You have attacked me on a personal level. I can't do the same? You liberals
are all the same, you dish it out, but you sure can't take it. Ann Coulter
would make mince meat out of you, I am certain of it. Her adams
apple.. LOL. Wow. I guess it is true, whiny libtards don't like a strong, opinionated woman. Especially if that woman is a republican. Does this fear of
a strong woman stem from you lacking in other areas, perhaps?
(2:02 AM): Jane, You are sick. Good night.
(2:03 AM): Check mate.
(2:04 AM): In your dreams.
(2:07 AM): I don't dream of whiny liberals that try to demonize the President, and teach
students to hate.
(2:07 AM): Says you.
(2:09 AM): Oh go to bed, Walter Mitty.
What is the net result of
such an exchange, lengthy though it may be? It is a conflict which produces
nothing; a fire with no heat. Even the lurker, that
passive member of the Internet audience so often overlooked as a participant,
is presented with precious little more than a reification of tired arguments
and clichéd (and strikingly similar) characterizations of time-worn
enemies. Mark and Jane achieve no apparent communication here. They simply yell
at one another until one of them submits on the basis of fatigue. Presumably,
they both find gratification in the expression of their opinions, but to what
Monologous speech describes those comments that express
opinions but neither respond to previous statements
nor pose any questions to the community, such as it is. Such statements are
again likely to include dismissive or stereotypical language, insults,
exclamations, and indelicate phrases (often profanity will be implied with
grammatical tricks in order to get by filtering software). Here are some
exemplars taken from various online comment boards:
i think this movie
will be stupid he is not the worst presidennt atleast he didnt lie under oath
about havinng an affair in the white house. any other president might not admit it but the choice was
right. either have war and more terrorist or take em down. its not even a war unless
congress was to declare war which they did not
No other president was hated more than Abraham Lincoln. He was considered
incompetent, a personal failure, and was despised by both sides. They blamed
the war on him, and if he didn''t start it he didn''t do enough to stop it, they said. Several attempts
were made on his life and JW Booth eluded capture for so long because there so many sympathisers in
And now I think arrogant lazy punks like you are the cause of America''s decline. You''ll find
someone, anyone to blame but yourself. You repeat nonsense you hear elsewhere
and don''t have any idea what you are talking about.
You surround yourself by people who think exactly like you do and say the same
things you do and if even it meant the United States would be utterly
destroyed, you would spew off the same garbage about
others just one more time. The reason you opposed the war in Iraq was because
it wasn''t about you. You are just as stupid as the
day is long and deserve everything you get. Idiot.
jerryomara: If this idiot writer thinks that makes Bush look
better or more likeable he is on Drugs he just looks a different kind of
fumbling stupid a hole
idnnsg: I haven''t seen this
movie because I can''t stand GW, so why spend 2 hrs
watching a movie about him? That said, now that the NRO is claiming that the
movie makes GW more "likeable", I''m sure
it must do a pretty good job portraying him as the despicable little r@t-b@stard that he truly is. (The NRO''s
hit ratio of truth to fiction is about 0.00001 percent.)
Want proof of how badly they twist reality? When Bush is asked what were his
biggest mistakes in Iraq, he can''t name a single
one! And they think the audience will feel sorry for him because "a president in wartime with American lives on the line can%u2019t
glibly answer a question like that"! What absolute BS!!! At that
point in time, we ALL knew there were NO WMDs!!! The
biggest mistake was illegally invading a country that did not attack us for NO GAWDD@MN REASON! (except to
steal their oil and park a bunch of military bases on their soil. Oh, yeah, and
so Baby Bush could be a "war president" and get away with whatever he
wanted!) We don''t "feel sorry" for the
rat-b@stard! We condemn him for 4,000+ dead US
soldiers (and maybe a half million dead Iraqis) who did not need to die! We
condemn him for wasting our country''s blood and
treasure! We condemn him for turning the entire world against us!
I don''t need the NRO to tell me what to think about this
movie, or about GW Bush or Johnny McSame. Contempt is
too polite a word for the feeling these r@t-b@stards
Let’s not kid each other here. The politically disinterested flightless birds
of Timbuktu know what purpose this movie serves. Set to be released only days
before the Presidential elections, the movie is just one more in a long line of
Hollywood's blatant propaganda films ("American President",
"Fahrenheit 451", and about a thousand others), financed by their
powerful and rich, though infinitely clueless Left. Naturally, Stone only
stopped an inch short of making a movie about John McCain himself; that would have been too obvious even for the unsubtle
Stone and his liberal cronies. The title "W" ends up being nothing
more than an abbreviation for "Wote Obama".
(No-one said Stone can spell!). Unlike Spielberg or Soderbergh, Stone isn't a closet Marxist: he has always
been pretty much out of the closet, barely hiding his passion and limitless
adoration for dictator Fidel Castro and other criminal sociopaths on the
international political scene. (When you support a blood-thirsty
despot you basically lose all moral rights to criticize any
democratically-elected public official.) Hence even to refer to him as a "liberal" is quite misleading. He has
more in common with Lenin than Joseph Biden (not intellectually, though:
IQ-wise we're talking Donald Duck here).
Besides, how very BRAVE
of Oliver Stone to single out the very unpopular Bush for big-screen
ridicule... Why didn't he make this movie in, let's say, 2003?
again Oliver Stone proves that he's lost his mind utterly and irrevocably not only
by making this kind of inevitable, cheesy drivel, but by proving that he can't
cast a $50 school play, let alone a major big-budget movie. Bush may not be the
greatest intellectual around, but to pick Josh Brolin
to play him would be the ultimate insult - to anyone. Brolin
exudes ZERO intelligence; besides, he does not look the part, he can't act at
all (unless Travolta-like overacting is what you seek), he is too young, and
his face resembles that of a stereotypical American college jock i.e. not even
remotely that of a politician: liberal, conservative or Martian. For the life
of me I can't picture this nepotistic offspring playing anyone but American
football heroes, serial-killing truck-drivers or wife-beating alcoholics….
Fedor8 continues for several
dozen more lines. His prose is carefully constructed – much more so than fckthebhaters’, for example – and one might suspect
that he or she spends a great deal of time writing (perhaps even blogging). But
for all fedor8’s eloquence and humor, his comment neither seeks nor finds a
response. Presumably, he or she feels empowered by the ability to express these
opinions, opinions that he or she might otherwise temper in the company of
others. Without being overly flip, though, I think it’s fair to apply here the
age-old question about trees falling in forests: if an action, regardless of
its magnitude, has no audience, is it any action at all?
Dialogue, finally, describes
exchanges that show evidence of a move forward on the part of communicators’
understanding (of phenomena, of the other viewpoint) as a result of the
communication event. In all of the hundreds of online comments analyzed, only
one exchange fulfilled this very basic criterion, the following between Ashley
and Mark (it is unknown whether this is the same “Mark” profiled above):
(Fri, Oct 17, 08 at 08:23 PM): I want to see the movie, but I doubt I will. I am the lone political buff in
my circle of friends. It has always made me laugh to see people calling Bush an
idiot AND a lying manipulative war criminal. He's either one or the other,
folks. C'mon. I personally don't think he's either. It is possible to admit
someone was a bad president without attacking them personally. Look at Jimmy
(Fri, Oct 17, 08 at 11:10 PM): Ashley, please go see it. The movie is NOT a Bush bash by any means. This is a
dark expose that explains the chasm W. and his Poppy are living through. The
movie also shows how W. was usurped by the likes of Rummy, Vice
(Sat, Oct 18, 08 at 10:50 AM): Oh, I know Mark. I'm not saying the movie is a Bush bash. I just have no one
to see it with. :( I love politics and political movies. A
little odd for a 21-year-old, but whatever.
(10:55 AM): Oh, and another thing, I was not talking about the movie, but
Bush-bashers in general. I should have made that clear, but I didn't. :/ Okay,
I'm done monopolizing the comment board.
Ashley and Mark use measured
language here, qualify their statements, and are even polite to one another (Mark
uses the word “please” unironically). That these
statements cannot be applied elsewhere in the pool of collected comments
suggests the latter’s striking dissimilarity to those transcribed from focus
the comment board did for Mark and Jane, on the one hand, and Mark and Ashley,
on the other, the focus group acted as a magnet that attracted respondents from
both sides of the political spectrum. While there are several exchanges within
the transcripts I might offer as examples of dialogue, in the space remaining I
would offer two in particular alongside some key information about those
involved. The first of these is a discussion bookended by the extreme political
positions of Lynne – a lifelong, vociferous, and beleaguered Democrat –
and Colby, whose “love” of Bush was made clear within his first introductory
Colby and Lynne
COLBY: I follow politics very closely, um, just cause this year counts.
I think, we’ve had eight years of Bush, and I love Bush…and now it’s Obama or
it’s McCain, and there’s 300 million people in American and those are the only
two that America could come up with [laughs].
I just know there’s a lot
more people out there we could be voting for. But, I don’t care for CNN…I’m a Republican, my parents are
Republican. It’s not that my they brainwashed me into being a
Republican, it’s just the way I am, I guess. I do watch CNN, even though I hate
it. I watch more Fox, because it’s fair and balanced [using hand gestures to
suggest quotations] as they call it. I love Bill O’Reilly, especially the
debate with Obama, that he had, or the interview with Obama… I’ll go online a
little bit, but I don’t blog or anything. I normally wake up with FoxNews. I watched every debate, recorded them, went back
and watched them again…
[to group] Well, what made you all decide to go and see the film in the
I decided to go because I thought that this would be an interesting forum for
discussion. If it hadn’t been for the invitation [to the focus group] I would
not have gone to see W. I can’t stand watching him on TV [motions in deference
I mean he just…he’s just not, just not my guy. So I do not know how…
He’s not an English major!
That’s for darn sure. Um, I thought it was interesting to remove myself from my
personal feelings a little bit, because I am a Democrat, to watch the…[Stone’s]
characterization of Bush. And I thought the cast was great. So I had to kind of
step back and watch it, and detach from the fact that it was kind of about him,
you know? That is was just an interesting study about this…this personality. So
that’s why I went. And it was a good cast. It was well-produced.
It was Oliver Stone. And I like Oliver Stone films. I mean, I’ll go because of
a certain director also, as well as the cast. So that’s why I went.
[Pauses to reflect] What…Do
you remember the scene…There was also a sense of him…um, how do I want to say
this? Not paying attention. I mean really not paying attention. When he went to
the hospital to visit the soldiers—
[group recognition of the scene]
--and it was like, it wasn’t even a media moment, it was…he was doing it
because it was something on his list of things to do, and he was crossing it
off his list, but he doesn’t think about what it is he’s doing. Like when that
guy was completely burned, and that close-up where he’s grabbing his thumb to
say good-bye, it’s like, ‘Ow!’ I mean, my first
impulse was, ‘Good God, what the Hell are you doing?’ You know?
I mean, that’s just crazy! You know? And then, after
that, whether it was that same guy or not, he goes, ‘Oh, y’all just come down
and see us in Houston!’ It was like everything was just a show, you know?
Everything was just kind of flip, like he doesn’t really, thoughtfully process
things. And that was the point I got from those whole sequences.
Yeah, I agree.
Later, another member of the
group asks what “the Democrats” would have thought about the film. Lynne, as
the only member of the group to self-identify in this fashion, answers:
I wouldn’t have gone to see it.
‘Cause you think…I don’t know how you would have [read] the actual trailer. I
mean, what did you think of it?
I don’t know that I ever saw the trailer, actually. Um, I had read an article
in the paper about it…I mean, I got to where I couldn’t stand to watch him on
Subtle but crucial in this
exchange is a common communication strategy almost completely absent in online
comments, except when used sarcastically or rhetorically: the question.
Similarly, as the focus group winds down, Lynne queries the group on another
I have a question for you all. Do you think that Bush is a self-reflective individual?
To where he really will look at all of this, and really ponder and worry about
it? You know, since he really just had his little architects sort of…[thinking]
Yeah, conjure up what it is for him to do? Or…is he self-reflective, or is he
just going to go, ‘Wow, I’m so glad that’s over with [miming the washing of
hands], I’m going to go back to the ranch’ [laughs]
I think he’ll worry about it for the rest of his life. He’ll have to have
Secret Service with him until he’s dead.
I think that he’ll look…I mean, I’m sure he looks, even now, I’m sure he looks
back, thinking ‘Oh, I should have done that differently, I should have done
that differently.’ But think mainly what he has in his head is he did the best
he could at the time, at the time that he did it. I mean, he was given a really
crappy deck, or a crappy hand, and it kind of—
But also everybody is their own person. And he could
Autumn and Andreas
Autumn is a college-aged Anglo
female with strong family roots in staunch conservatism. Her father is a clear
opinion leader for her, such that her impressions of the film going in were
significantly inflected by his distaste for Stone. She left the film in a state
of angered dissonance, having been exposed by Stone to a number of
uncomfortable pieces of information about Bush. Andreas, on the other hand, is
an articulate, Latino college male with a progressive political stance. The
following exchange illustrates nicely the dialogue in which these two largely
opposite participants took part:
Did anyone walk out of the film feeling in some way more or less engaged with
the political process?
I guess I feel more engaged…Cause there was a lot of stuff I had no idea….Yeah, it’s weird, now that we’re talking about it, it
really doesn’t make me mad. ‘Cause I’ve been listening to the way everyone else
thinks, so it’s kind of changed the way I felt about the movie.
You mean here? Tonight?
Yeah, just sitting here talking, like you’ve [to ANDREAS] said a couple things
that I would never have thought of watching that movie. Like instead of [the
film’s] showing, like, real-life things making him seem more like a human
being, I felt that they were attacking him in the movie and making him look
stupid. And you know now that I’m thinking about it, well, you know, they
showed him how he lived his life. He lived a normal college – my normal college life [miming quotes] – he lived it.
And then they showed him growing up, you know, to be like a real professional
person. Yeah. So that’s what I think. Like the way that they viewed things, I
did not view, in the movie, but now, looking back, it makes a lot of sense. You
know, they weren’t attacking him, they
were showing his life. I thought they were – see I went with a
negative impression anyway. I
thought it was going to be funny, I thought they were going to be making fun of
him. And I don’t find that to be really funny. You know, you have to be
respectful. He still is the President of the United States, regardless of
whether you like him or not. You know, so….I guess I
was more engaged because I learned a lot of stuff that I had no idea was
It sounds to me like you both came out with a desire to learn a little bit more
about him, maybe?
I think it’s interesting that both sides saw the film and got something
different out of it.
yeah, ‘cause I learned a lot from you [to ANDREAS], and I was expecting you to
be anti-Bush, ‘I hate Bush,’ blah, blah, blah…But
there’s where you go and judge a book by its cover. You say ‘Democrat,’ so I
automatically go, ‘Oh, you’re anti-Bush.’ You know, which is wrong for me to do
that, but it’s like, that’s the world we live in. You know, we do that, and
that’s the wrong thing to do, and I apologize for that [to ANDREAS]…
But again, you did inform me on
some of the stuff that I didn’t realize and like, I don’t know…But I got
something out of this.
One way of reading these
exchanges is to suggest that in-person proximity to someone of antagonistic
political position serves to dull conversation, to promote a kind of quiescence
for the purposes of preserving decorum. I would like to conclude by
complicating that argument.
Civility or politeness is a
strategy generally employed in the face-to-face encounter. When communicating
via CMC, these rhetorical strategies seem to disappear. Some find this to be a
positive, since the less filtering takes place the more “true” comment results,
and the less embodiment of unseen discursive categories the greater chance that
all parties will be given the opportunity to speak. I think the matter is
rather less settled. One of the reasons that civility decreases online is due
to the fluidity of identity and the lack of concern for repercussions upon one’s
reputation. Is identity, then, rather than an encumbrance to “true” talk,
actually a provider of trust in the dialogic encounter and therefore a
requirement for truly constructive democratic speech? The online comments
highlighted here (and there are many others for which these serve as
representatives) do not engage so much as harangue, attack, belittle, or
proclaim. Compared to the focus group exchanges included above, the few true
exchanges that do take place are argumentative in nature and do not appear to
result in a richness of understanding for either party. It is in this way that
I propose the study of CMC’s contribution to political speech be reexamined.
Certainly, the focus group environment is a synthetic one and not
representative of the type of face-to-face encounter in which average citizens
might find themselves. On the other hand, given its still socially and
economically circumscribed nature, we may make similar evaluations of the
blogosphere. In the comments analyzed above, which appear to exist in a forum
visited by CMC literati and neophytes alike and more closely resemble a kind of
public space, do not such declaratory and demeaning statements serve to squelch
rather than promote dialogue? Is there not reason to see such statements as
modes of broadcast rather than modes of exchange? The decoupling in CMC of
statements from their authors may indeed remove several cumbersome elements of
power relations that might otherwise chill such speech, but it is fruitful to
consider what is relinquished in such a bargain.
I am not proposing that
focus groups should be convened in cities and towns around the country to
promote democratic dialogue (although, when one considers efforts such as James Fishkin’s  toward “deliberative democracy”, why
not?), but rather that using this opportunity to compare the results of such a
focused social context with online political speech allows one a better view of
what might be a specific weakness of Internet democracy and brings into sharper
relief what is lost in the devaluing of interpersonal conversation as a valid
form of deliberation. Much of the former argument’s force depends upon a sense
of politeness as a discursive structure that disallows or discounts alterity.
This is certainly what prompts Papacharissi (2004) to
make the distinction between politeness and civility. As she points out quite
rightly, “civility is misunderstood when reduced to interpersonal politeness,
because this definition ignores the democratic merit of robust and heated discussion”
(260, emphasis added). The goal of the preceding has not been to argue this
point with Papacharissi, but rather to ask whether
discussion isn’t actually a bit of a misnomer for what proceeds online. The
ideal of virtual democracy, and the attendant valorization of identity-free
talk it affords, amounts to a belief that something approximating communication
results from chaotic speech freedom. But an important aspect of politeness –
and not necessarily, as Papacharissi defines it,
civility – is the act of listening. Based on the observations above, the
latter is absent in all but a miniscule few online political interactions.
Does, paradoxically, the lack of a solid, public identity online produce a “reality”
of conflict for its own sake in much the same way as does the hyper-identities
of Real World cast members? An argument against what I have suggested here
might point out the benefit of robust CMC communication (whether polylogue, monologue, or dialogue) to the lurking reader of
such comments, but the paucity of constructive dialogue online might be said to
mirror the kind of drama-inflected “reality” found on cable television. If the
goal of those concerned about the relationship between political discussion and
media technologies is to promote fora in which problems might be solved rather
than exacerbated and opposing viewpoints might be understood rather than
ignored, the problems of identity, trust, and, yes, politeness, remain crucial.
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