Two-Step Flow of Communication Theory: Simple Explanation

The article emphasizes the two-step flow of communication. Here we discuss how the theory has been developed and progressed due to its foundation. It also addresses the drawbacks and criticisms associated with the theory and its feasibility. To help understand the concept of the theory, the article uses current and applicable examples in everyday life to support the theory. Additionally, it highlights the characteristics and importance of the two-step flow in communication and interaction.

Two-step flow of communication-

Have you ever wondered whether your thoughts and opinions originate from your mind or are inserted by others? Do you believe something based on the facts or based on an individual’s statement? Is the news you read or listen to base on some facts or influenced by other people’s viewpoints? You can see various instances like this in everyday life where a piece of information reaches you after various interpretations and not directly. This theory has been conceptualised as the Two-Step Flow of Communication.

Two Step Flow of Communication

A study of voters’ decision-making processes during the 1940 U.S. presidential election published in the book The People’s Choice gave rise to the two-step flow model described by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. The two-step flow theory denoted that communication and interaction that takes place among groups have a greater impact on individuals than the direct media.

It further states that the data, information and facts presented directly by the media such as television, radio, newspaper and social media don’t directly impact the people. Here the role of opinion leaders is mentioned in the theory, who absorb the information and knowledge and pass it on to the rest of society. They act as a middleman but along with the facts, personal opinions, interpretations and bias is also passed forward to the larger sections of society. So, in short, from media houses, the information is passed on to opinion leaders and from them to the larger audiences.

The theory was tested during the U.S Presidential election, where the impact and influence on people by their opinion leaders was more as compared to the election campaign media being promoted everywhere. The theory stated that word-of-mouth publicity and the passing of information are more livid and more prevalent in society. Several interesting findings were also revealed by the study, including the fact that fewer people got to know about the election through the media directly as compared to those who came to know about it from their social groups.

Characteristics of the two-step flow of communication-

  • The two-step flow of communication brought a paradigm shift in understanding communication. It challenged the prevailing hypodermic needle model back then whose comprehension of communication was directly between the media sources and society. However, the two-step flow theory defied and changed the perspective of how communication takes place.
  • It introduced the role of an intermediary between the media and the audience.
  • The role of opinion leaders or social groups is quite personal since it has a common ground. Compared to mass media, social groups and societies are more likely to share interests, hobbies, demographics, and personalities, facilitating the flow of information and communication.
  • As a result of Paul Lazarsfeld’s collaboration with Elihu Katz, the two-step flow theory was further developed, especially in their book Personal Influence. They further contested that the media houses can apply the one-shoe size-fits-everyone theory and expect a heterogenous society to react or act similarly. This is where the significance and potential of opinion leaders are realised. The similarities or shared qualities help the opinion leaders to connect with respective groups and spread information.
  • Opinion leaders who understand the content of media and have better access to it can channel media information to the masses in an effective manner.
  • Despite what many people believe, the two-step flow of communication theory suggests that mass media is not as powerful as they think.
  • Per the two-step hypothesis, opinion leaders are the crucial channels for transmitting political information. Additionally, opinion leaders are influential in shaping public opinion.

Limitations –

  • One of the major limitations of the two-step flow theory is that it is far more complex than it is presented. There are many more ways and steps which are involved in the flow of communication but the theory limits them to just two.
  • The sources of influence or opinion leaders often intersect with each other. The flow of influence sometimes is not in sequence as it is perceived to be. The sources from direct media and an opinion leader can have a convergence. The biggest limitation of the theory is that it can’t always follow a rigid pattern.
  • It limits itself with the second step stating that the opinion leaders or one-on-one personal communication have a greater impact. However, on the other hand, the major news reaches out to people and creates an impact on them with the help of mass media.

Criticism –

The two-step flow theory along with its significant achievements has invited multiple criticisms.

  • The two-step flow of communication theory is often criticised for belittling the importance of social media in spreading news, information, and facts and reaching out to people.
  • Among the respondents to Everett Rogers’ study in Diffusion of Innovations (1962), more than 60% attributed their awareness to mass media rather than interpersonal interactions.
  • Some also argue that the two-step flow of communication has become obsolete since there has been great advancement in the internet and technology. It is asserted that now it has become easier for multiple people to interpret their views and it is not based solely on a significant source. The progress in social media has changed the way people perceive information.
  •  Researchers argue that information flows through more than two steps from mass media to media consumers, not just two. Concerning the ever-changing digital landscapes and social dynamics, it is believed that there exists a possibility for one, two or multiple-step flow of communication.
  • The major weakness that is observed in the two-step flow of communication is that the evidence of indulgence of media in directly spreading facts, news and information to the audience and consumers is greatly shunned. Ignorance disregards the times when media has impacted the thoughts and opinions of people directly.

Examples- Two-Step Flow of communication

  • The two-step flow of communication theory is often put into practice by advertising and marketing companies to spread their services and product information. Along with directly appealing to the mass consumers via media, they rely greatly on some public figures or opinion leaders to spread the message. The section of society that feels connected to that public figurine might feel enticed to try out the new product or service in the market. Further on, the news about it might get spread among society via word-of-mouth publicity. In addition, some opinion leaders within the society may also influence the decisions of the rest of the population. This helps the information to reach out to a greater section of society.
  • The public relations office of a government or an institution often uses the two-step flow of communication strategy to complete their agendas. Apart from conveying their messages through different formats and spaces of mass media, PR analysts also engage certain opinion leaders like influencers to help them reach out their voices and thoughts to the people. The opinion leader can play a remarkable role in disseminating the agenda and passing on information to the public. Further, interactions in social groups such as schools and colleges, family functions, and discussions in events and clubs might also lead to spreading information and conveying the message to the people.
  •  One of the most common examples we come across every day is tweets. The social media platform Twitter enables users to share their opinions and thoughts in a few words, which are called Tweets. Whenever a certain incident takes place, the Twitter platform is filled with posts and Tweets condemning or praising it. Often when an influential persona or an opinion leader in other words expresses his/her beliefs and notions, the Tweet becomes famous and gets shared among people. Often, we also notice common people mentioning that specific person in their Tweets, supporting and sometimes contradicting it. But that specific piece of information which might have been impacted or shaped by the personal bias and thoughts of that opinion person might spread and get shared the most. In turn, it reaches out to people via the method of resharing and reposting. It starts further dialogue or arguments. The original piece and source of media might become less significant at one point in time. This phenomenon is also visible on various sites and platforms of social media.

Importance of two-step flow of communication:

  • The two-step flow of communication is important for the active participation of individuals and communities or groups in spreading information and communicating knowledge. The influence created at multiple levels by pinion leaders is essential for achieving various agendas. For instance, any political campaign has an agenda associated with it which is further propagated via public interaction in open and close knitted groups. The second step of the two-step flow of communication acts as a source of free publicity or spreading of awareness among the society. And the information passes on and on, from one person to another.
  • The two-step flow of communication is important and relevant even in modern times. It is used in various professions to avail of personal and professional benefits. In business, social entrepreneurship, marketing, advertisement and even public relations, this theory is utilised to reap benefits at every stage. It is even visible while achieving day-to-day goals and objectives. The theory states that social interaction plays a more significant role than printed, audio, or video media. In addition, word-of-mouth publicity can be used to spread a person’s motives or goals which is described in step two of the flow.

Despite its drawbacks and criticisms, the two-step flow of communication is a major theory used in modern communications to understand how mass media influence opinion leaders, how messages influence audiences, and why certain campaigns change attitudes.

Also Read Sociological Understanding of Tiktok, Reels, Etc.

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Isha Rane is a sociology graduate with a keen interest in research and analysis, focusing on areas such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Resources, and Public Policy. She is an avid reader, particularly enjoying books about the history and political scenario of India. Isha also likes to write about pressing issues and topics that require a voice in the conversation. Her career aspirations lie in the development sector. Additionally, she has a passionate interest in mythology and calligraphy.