Digital Influencers and the Two-Step Flow Theory
Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1968) introduced the two-step flow theory to explain why the media had less of an influence on public voting behavior than other individuals and predict why certain campaigns succeeded in changing audience opinions. In more general terms, they attempted to understand how mass media influences decision making and opinions. They propose that interpersonal communication between family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and other members of the groups in which an individual is involved has a stronger impact on shaping opinions than the mass media (Turcotte et al., 2015). This influence can be regarded as a type of external personal influence.
Individuals who have the ability to influence others can be labeled as opinion leaders. Opinion leaders filter information obtained from mass media sources to their interpersonal network. The conceptualization and operationalization of opinion leaders has evolved over time. When Lazarsfeld et al. (1968) first introduced this theory, they described opinion leaders as politically active, well-informed, and trusted informants within their group or network. Succeeding research proposed individuals could only be explicated as opinion leaders if they held a similar social status as those they influenced, were an active discussion leader, and perceived to be knowledgeable about the topic (Katz & Lazarseld, 1955). In general, one can conceptualize opinion leaders as individuals who others regard as credible, well-respected, engaged individuals in the community. It is important to note that opinion leaders’ extent of influence depends upon their scope of interest, which means that an individual who is considered an opinion leader in fashion may not be an opinion leader in politics.
Lazarsfeld et al. (1968) explain how information from the media moves in two stages, emphasizing the work of opinion leaders. The first stage consists of communication between the mass media outlets and the more active media consumers, the opinion leaders. Opinion leaders then attend to mesages from the media and spread their interpretative meaning of the messages to the less-active media consumers, which constitutes the second step of the two-step flow (Lazarsfeld et al., 1968). These findings regarding influence and relationships with the media eventually become known as the “limited effects paradigm” or the “effects tradition” of media influence, which explains that even if the media influences the opinions and decisions of individuals, this effect is minimal or limited. Joseph Klapper extends the two-step flow theory with a reinforcement approach by arguing that mass media is not a “necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects: it is mediated by other variables” (Littlejohn et al., p. 158, 2017).
More recent research examines the two-step flow theory and influence of opinion leaders in the context of social media. According to Gangadharbatla and Valafar (2017), there is not a big differentiation between the way information propagates on social media and traditional media. Even on democratic environments like Instagram, most information propagates through opinion leaders. We typically reference these opinion leaders as influencers. These opinion leaders yield a strong influence on how and fast information spreads on social media.
The perception of what influential is, or who is an influencer, is changing. According to previous research, influencers strategically communicate and project their identities online to build popularity (Senft, 2008), treat friends and strangers as fans to enhance their celebrity status (Marwick, 2013), and see themselves as brands and entrepreneurs (Duffy, 2017). According to Abidin (2015b), influencers can be defined as standard Internet users who amass a substantial following on blogs and social media through the use of images, videos, and text narrating their lives, engage with their followers in virtual and physical spaces, and incorporate advertisements for products into their blog or social media posts and collaborate with brands to monetize their internet success.
Building strong, intimate relationships with their followers gives influencers the ability to sway consumers’ perceptions. Influencers build relationships by creating social media content focusing on a topic such as fashion and beauty (Duffy, 2017), travel and tourism (Gretzel, 2018; Van Nuenen, 2016), and video games (Cunningham & Craig, 2017). Despite existing research on influencers as cultural creators arguing that influencers use strategies like discussing lifestyles and interacting with followers in the physical world to become more intimate with their followers (Abidin, 2015a; Abidin & Thompson, 2012; McQuarrie, Miller), Abidin and Ots (2016) argue that authenticity and credibility are the most crucial factors when building intimacy and relationships. Wellman et al. (2020) elaborate on the issue of authenticity in relation to sponsored content. According to Wellman et al. (2020), the ethics of authenticity is postulated on two central tenets: “being true to oneself and brand” and “being true to one’s audience” (p. 68). This premise raises the question of how the rise of computer-generated influencers in the fashion industry will impact these norms and how that impact will influence perceptions of brands that collaborate with this new type of influencer. The potential impacts of this trend are discussed here.