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The two-step flow of communication hypothesis was first formulated by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues (1944) in their classic study on the 1940 American presidential election. It states that there is usually no direct influence of the mass media on the general public. Rather, “ideas often flow from radio and print to the opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population” (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944, 151). This assumption, challenging the then popular idea of strong direct media effects on the public, turned out to be one of the most influential ideas in communication research from the 1940s until at least the 1960s.
The two-step flow of communication model consists of at least five more or less explicitly stated hypotheses. (1) Most people are not directly exposed to the mass media. They are rather two-step flow of communication 625 informed via interpersonal communication by so-called opinion leaders. (2) Opinion leaders are much more exposed to mass media and much more engaged in active communication than the general public is. (3) Opinion leaders not only inform the followers, but also transmit the content of the mass media to them. (4) The general public is not only informed but also influenced by opinion leaders. (5) Opinion leaders are not passive gatekeepers of media information. They transmit media content biased through their own opinions.
In recent research these hypotheses have often been disentangled and studied separately. Generally, three types of studies can be distinguished. First, studies on the diffusion of news show that nowadays in western democracies about 80–90 percent of adults are exposed to any kind of media news on an average weekday while less than 5 percent say that they are primarily informed by interpersonal communication. Second, studies on opinion leaders suggest that the concept of a two-step flow of communication is oversimplified (e.g., opinion leaders engage in interpersonal communication with followers as well as with other opinion leaders). Third, studies on the sources of public opinion show that people frequently talk about media content, but it remains unclear whether they convey it neutrally or in a manner that is biased by their own opinions
- Brosius, H.-B. & Weimann, G. (1996). Who sets the agenda? Agenda-setting as a two-step flow. Communication Research, 23, 561–580.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1944). The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce.
- Weimann, G. (1994). The influentials: People who influence people. New York: State University of New York Press.