The Effect of Social Contagion on Public Opinion

By Garcia, Cesar | The World and I, November 2009 | Go to article overview

The Effect of Social Contagion on Public Opinion


Garcia, Cesar, The World and I


From the Tyranny of the Majority to the Wisdom of the Nobody

The sales success of Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Tipping Point,' which has sold 1.7 million of copies since its publication in 2000, has revitalized the use of the expression "social contagion" along with other terms such as "virus" and "social epidemics" to describe vehicles of social change. Although not an academic book, the academic world of comunication studies should not remain indifferent to the popularity enjoyed by Gladwell as a public speaker in top companies, business schools and the National Institutes of Health (Donadio, 2006).

The idea of public opinion as an entity that can be created, modified, changed or influenced by contagion is not a novelty. The contagion concept was used for the first time in the late 19th century in France by the social psychologists (Gustave Le Bon, 1895; Gabriel Tarde, 1903) to analyze the irrational behavior of crowds.

But Gladwell distinguishes himself from the 19th century authors by presenting the concept in a positive way, emphasizing the posibilities of an intelligent use of social epidemics as a "reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action" in our societies (Gladwell, 2002, p. 259). Gladwell also underscores the individual capacity to become a social change agent acting as a part of the crowd (1).

Gladwell's work is only the divulgative expression of a deeper trend. His vision of the important role played by social contagion in the expansion of beliefs, ideas or products has been shared since the 1960's by all the supporters of the diffusion of innovations theory (Rogers, 1983) and social scientists from various disciplines. Health promotion practitioners were forerunners in their consideration of social networks as a tool to promote to promote behavioral change (e.g. Rogers and Kincaid, 1981; Wasserman and Faust, 1994; Valente, 1995; Scott, 2000). This trend has been endorsed by other non-academic books as well, including some which have had great influence on the world of organizations, challenging traditional notions of decisions based on rationality in favor of the individual mastery of emotions (Goleman, 1995; Gladwell, 2006) or collective wisdom (Surowiecki, 2004).

Ultimately, what Gladwell has implicitly pointed out is that the world is arriving of a new era, a post-media era where no single media form will be as dominant as television was before. In this new era, social networks and interpersonal contact will play a major role in the creation and extension of ideas and opinions. In this new world, Internet should be understood as another channel that reproduces many of the same characteristics of social networks in a different context.

A product of this new situation is a new type of audience that, more critical than ever of mass media, has started to rely again on other people's opinions at the interpersonal level. As a consequence of this change, anybody and everybody can potentially be an opinion leader, which is another way of saying that the role of traditional opinion leaders is eroding. In other words, the movements of public opinion in society can be explained through human interaction phenomena that follow a certain set of rules that needs to be decoded.

This article has two main purposes. The first is to review the main sources of the concepts, data and thought that have guided the description of public opinion as a product of social contagion since the 19th century through today. As a logical goal of the first analysis, the second objective is to suggest a set of questions that needs to be resolved in order to configurate new communication models integrating intrapersonal, social influence, interpersonal and mass media factors.

The Era of the Tyranny of the Majority

The popularity that the social contagion concept reached in that period came preceded by two phenomena of different nature: the development of epidemiology studies by medical science, and the irruption of the liberalist theory of the tyranny of public opinion.

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