An “opinion leader” is one whose opinions about something have a significant impact on the opinions of others. “Influencer” is sometimes used as a synonym for opinion leader.
In politics, an opinion leader helps to shape public opinion about policies, issues, and candidates for political office. Outside of politics, an opinion leader might shape popular views of religion, business, social mores, or culture, for example.
Fifty years ago, opinion leaders probably wrote editorials for major newspaper or for broadcast news programs. Today, opinion leaders are much likelier to be online, sharing their views via social media. When political actors want to reach the public, they turn to social media. When they want to be sure to reach a sizeable section of the public, they turn to online opinion leaders. Al Gore’s The Climate Project was a relatively early example of this phenomenon:
An example of the two-step flow theory is Al Gore’s The Climate Project and the more recent We campaign (Nisbet, Kotcher). For both, he recruited digital opinion leaders to reach more people and increase education of climate change and policy details. According to surveys, trends depict that the American public is largely disengaged from the climate change issue. The use of digital opinion leaders allows Al Gore and his campaign to sidestep the media completely and talk with their audience directly. Al Gore himself is also an opinion leader. He is heavily involved with and connected to the issue of global warming and the campaign to raise awareness. His prominent status and knowledge about the issue help sways public opinions.
Of course, not every opinion leader is operating on social media. Shortly after the 2020 election, New York Magazine wrote that…”some conservative opinion leaders are already looking forward to a post-Trump future where the viable things about the 45th president can be neatly separated from his troublesome persona.” The “opinion leader” referenced in the article turned out to be Kristin Tate, a writer for The Hill.
Broadly speaking, the more polarized the country becomes, the more people may be listening to the opinion leaders who speak for their political “side.” Back in 2018, the Economist wrote about this trend, arguing that even as people complained about President Trump’s use of Twitter, both sides were being swayed by the views they found on social media:
There are limits to the power of politicians’ statements to shift behavior. However, as partisanship grows, committed members of political parties seem increasingly inclined to change their attitudes to match those of their parties’ leaders. Research suggests that partisanship trumps other factors when people form political opinions.
At the same time, some analysts argue, it’s important to take social media and online influencers with a big grain of salt. Sometimes, it’s true, Twitter and Facebook stars might influence masses of people. But at other times, social media can operate like an echo chamber. This is especially true of Twitter. People who spend hours every day glued to Twitter might have very different concerns from other people. As The Atlantic wrote:
To decision makers who spend most of their days ensconced in an elite bubble, Twitter can seem like a way out, a clear window into pure public opinion. In reality, it’s an extreme distortion.