The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 inspired plenty of debate, much of which played out in blogs. Since that fall, Elizabeth Suhay, assistant professor of government and law, has been studying blog discussions on the topic to explore how emotions and political identity motivate people to conform to the political views expressed by their peers.
The project grew out of Suhay’s dissertation at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she earned her Ph.D. in political science. Political blogs are an easier way to study natural interactions among peers because they offer recorded conversations, where commenters are not influenced by the presence of a researcher, says Suhay.
She first began working with Kelly Senters ’13 (Center Valley, Pa.) and Allyson Blackwell ’12, both double majors in international affairs and government & law, through Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars undergraduate research program. Senters helped identify popular blogs for the study, and Blackwell assisted with blog selection as well as the development of the sampling methodology and the coding scheme. The team selected a representative sample of posts from five popular political blog sites as well as the websites of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They made a point of including politically conservative, moderate, and liberal blogs.
Psychology and government & law double major Cameron Roche ’13 (Southborough, Mass.) and government and law major Lucien Bruggeman ’14 (Saint Paul, Minn.) joined the project last year, also as EXCEL Scholars. They painstakingly analyzed hundreds of blog posts and thousands of reader comments responding to them, focusing on the writers’ opinions on Occupy Wall Street, the emotions they expressed, and whether they used “uncivil” language when criticizing others. Their findings, which Suhay is preparing to publish in two academic articles, were both expected and surprising.
“Blogs are an online forum, so conventional conversational rules do not always apply,” says Roche, who will begin a Ph.D. program in American politics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst next year. “For example, many of the bloggers were extremely contemptuous and often rude toward others with differing views.”
While incivility is certainly a common occurrence in online discourse, the research team was surprised that contempt—expressions indicating that another person or group is inferior or does not deserve respect—was by far the dominant emotion. For example, one notable comment compared Howard Buffett (son of investor Warren Buffett) to Star Wars character Jabba the Hut. Another surprising finding was that while liberal blogs supported Occupy Wall Street and conservative blogs opposed it (as expected), the newspaper blogs remained fairly neutral.
“This is an exciting finding,” says Suhay. “While many scholars have become concerned about political polarization in the blogosphere, this suggests that polarization is not a necessary condition of blogging. Bloggers working for respected newspapers tend to follow the norms of political neutrality associated with traditional media sources.”
Suhay views her role in the project as less of a director and more of a partner.
“Collaborating with students helps me produce higher-quality research,” she says. “Their questions and suggestions spur me to revise my data collection efforts in productive ways.”
For Bruggeman, who is considering law school after graduation and hopes to work as a political satirist (he is interning for The Colbert Report this summer), the EXCEL experience offers the autonomy and responsibility he will need to exercise in the future. “The opportunity to work independently was particularly valuable,” he says.
Roche’s research helped him stand out among the talented pool of graduate school applicants. He also conducted social psychological research pertaining to law and justice with John Shaw, associate professor of psychology, and psychology major Taylor Dougherty ’13 (Parlin, N.J.); designed and analyzed archetypes for Supreme Court justices with Bruce Murphy, Kirby Professor of Government and Law; and completed an honors thesis on the personality traits of Senate candidates under Murphy’s guidance.
“Professor Suhay has given me great insight into the process of high-level research,” he says. “She has given me tips and advice that have allowed me to better my own research in the area of personality traits. It has been people like Professor Suhay who have pushed and encouraged me to reach for my best.”