First Monday

When technology meets ideology: Frame analysis of ideological discourses on the nature of the Internet in American magazines of opinion (1995-2019) by Krzysztof Wasilewski

This paper uses quantitative and qualitative content analysis of two respected U.S. magazines of opinion — the conservative National Review and liberal The Nation — in the years 1995–2019 to see how they frame discourses on the nature of the Internet. Since media frames organize information and provide a perspective through which message receivers come to understand a subject, they should be regarded as discursive manifestations of political ideologies. This study examines substantive frames which provide a broader context to particular events and information. Just like politicians and mass media are responsible for the construction and dissemination of procedural frames, so magazines of opinion are responsible for the formation of substantive frames, which respond to procedural frames and set them in an ideological background. In order to analyse the process of substantive frame building and frame setting by magazines of opinion, this paper modifies Robert Entman’s cascading network activation model.


1. Introduction
2. Magazines of opinion in the U.S. political system
3. Ideology, frames, and Robert Entman’s cascade model
4. Technology discourse
5. Research data and methods
6. Quantitative analysis
7. Qualitative analysis
8. Discussion
9. Conclusions



1. Introduction

Technology is never neutral. Steven E. Goldberg and Charles Strain [1] explained that “technology should not be understood on the model of a tool — something consciously chosen to achieve a predetermined end”. Unlike a hammer or any other tool, whose use and effect are decided by a given user, technology is a complex system that “can delimit the field of possibilities for thought and action” [2]. As a result, social responses to technology, and technological progress in general, largely depend on ideologies — or a consistent set of values, attitudes, and beliefs. It is ideology that explains which political, economic, social, and cultural changes are desired and which should be avoided. Therefore, some products of technological progress are considered positive while others negative. In his history of technology and social engineering in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century, John M. Jordan [3] pointed out that regardless of a historical epoch, “research, development, discovery, and invention continue to redefine the physical, intellectual, and political world”. Today, probably more than ever before, politics, economy, culture, as well as social relations are embedded within technology. Technology, first and foremost, is epitomized by the Internet (Goyder, 1997).

The aim of this paper is to analyse how two respected U.S. magazines of opinion — National Review and The Nation — frame their discourses on the nature of the Internet. These magazines were selected for this research as they explicitly define themselves as — respectively — conservative and liberal/progressive, which makes it possible to investigate differences and similarities in framing between two opposing ideologies. Since frames “organize information and provide a perspective through which message receivers come to understand the subject matter” [4], they should be regarded as discursive manifestations of political ideologies. This study examines substantive frames, providing a broader context to particular events and information. Just like politicians and mass media are responsible for the construction and dissemination of procedural frames, magazines of opinion are responsible for the formation of substantive frames, which respond to procedural frames and set them in an ideological background. In order to analyse the process of substantive frame building and frame setting by magazines of opinion, this paper modifies Robert Entman’s cascading network activation model. Consequently, a quantitative and qualitative content analysis, covering six years (1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2019), was designed and carried out in order to answer four research questions:

R1: Which substantive frames did the two magazines employ in their discourses on the nature of the Internet?

R2: What were the quantitative differences in the usage of the substantive frames between the magazines?

R3: Which topics concerning the Internet did the magazines respond to through their substantive frames?

R4: What were the qualitative differences in the usage of the substantive frames between the magazines?

Content analysis is preceded by theoretical examinations. The second section locates magazines of opinion within the U.S. political system and explains why they should be perceived as important institutions of political socialization. The third section introduces basic concepts concerning framing theory, including Entman’s cascade model in its modified version. In the fourth section, basic tenets of technology discourse are described, part of which is the examined discourse on the nature of the Internet. Research data and methods, together with research questions and hypotheses, are detailed in the fifth section. Sections six and seven comprise of a quantitative and qualitative content analysis respectively. Discussion is held in the eighth section. The paper ends with the conclusion, summing up the findings.



2. Magazines of opinion in the U.S. political system

Magazines of opinion (both printed and online) occupy a special position in the American political system. If the political system can be understood as a set of institutions, including the mass media, then these periodicals — being “one of the oldest of the mass media” — serve as its intellectual backbone [5]. Having said that, there still remains a strong disagreement about the nature of these journals (Berry, 1976). For example, William L. Rivers [6] maintains that “it is almost useless to try to define the term any more precisely; there are so many different kinds of magazines that a definition that adequately describes one will ignore several others”. This definitional problem derives, among others, from serious changes in readership and media usage in general that have affected the magazine industry in the United States for the last few decades. Refraining from any detailed description of such periodicals, it can be repeated after William H. Taft [7] that they “cover a broad spectrum, including politics, social and political issues, economics, educational, racial, and others”. Although their circulations are relatively low, they are read by highly targeted audiences that receive “specially tailored information resulting in high-involvement media use” [8]. The fact that magazines of opinion reach the country’s elites allows them to maintain a strong — even if unofficial — position in the United States political system. Throughout history, such magazines have proved their ability to orchestrate social, political, and economic changes [9]. Moreover, they still remain important in the digital age, as scholars indicate their crucial role in establishing frames of narration in online political communication (Sivek, 2013; Chong and Druckman, 2010).

Thus, despite differences in their definitions, magazines of opinion perform four main functions within the political system. First, they provide a forum of discussion. Second, they can sustain campaigns for indefinite periods. Third, magazines work for cumulative — rather than single — impact. Fourth, thanks to the reading habits of their audiences, they can give lengthy treatment to subjects [10]. In other words, magazines of opinion, when examined from the perspective of political theory, can be regarded as institutions of political socialization. According to Kenneth P. Langton [11], political socialization is “the process mediated through various agencies of society, by which an individual learns politically relevant attitudinal dispositions and behavioural patterns”. Other scholars add to that definition that political socialization also involves the transmission of values which then help determine not only ideologies but also opinions on specific issues [12]. The major agencies of political socialization can be organized into five general categories: family, school, peers, events, experiences, and the media — including online media (Erikson and Luttbeg, 1973; German and Lally, 2014). By being exposed to these agencies, an individual learns to recognize status positions, values, and patterns of behaviour.

There is little doubt that in the more mediated reality, mass media as agencies of political socialization are increasingly gaining in importance. As Stuart Hall [13] puts it, “today communicative institutions and relations define and construct the social; they help to constitute the political; they mediate productive economic relations; they define the technological itself; they dominate the cultural”. While family and school still largely affect one’s political socialization, it is mass media (including online media) that seem to prevail in that process. For example, Hanna Adoni (1979) proved that mass media are essential for the development of political values and the reinforcement of ties with primary socializing agents. The same applies to online media (Östman, 2013). Naturally, there is a question whether magazines of opinion can be compared to such mass media outlets as cable television or high-circulation newspapers, to say nothing of online social media. However, as everyday media largely fail to provide any substantive context to the information they report, magazines have the knowledge, space, and time to describe and explain all the intricacies in a given story (Patterson, 1994; Cappella and Jamieson, 1997). In other words, by setting a story in a wider context, magazines of opinion enhance news with ideological background. Therefore, these periodicals should be regarded as one of the main tools of ideological communication. As David Laycock has it, “through the combined efforts of those who produce its texts, performances and mediated transmissions, every ideology ‘decontests’ each of its key concepts, especially when these actively debated outside the ideology, and always in relation to other key concepts” [14].



3. Ideology, frames, and Robert Entman’s cascade model

Regardless of the on-going debate on the nature of ideology, it can be defined — after William E. Connolly — as “a system of accepted political beliefs, often needed to orient political activity in problematic situations, [which] also tends to be organized in ways which protect the higher level commitments of its supporters” [15]. Although it was provided over half a century ago, that general definition still remains in use in contemporary studies (Knight, 2006; van Dijk, 2007). For some political scientists, ideology is simply a set of ideas or a belief system (Freeden, 2003). Such understood ideologies perform two main functions: they bind a community together and organize the role personalities of an individual [16]. The former is performed at the social level, the latter at the individual level. Most scholars agree that every ideology carries out both functions, first and foremost, through language. According to Ruth Wodak, it is language that defines the group’s identity, values, and goals. In other words, language helps people to “signal their ideology through certain slogans and stereotypes; their ideological structure is joined together in a certain way and so is their argumentation” [17]. Mass media, being major agencies of political socialization, introduce and reproduce that language, reinforcing readers’ ideological affiliations. In his study on discourse and ideology, Teun A. van Dijk warned against popular notion about mass media as neutral carriers of information. They are rather tools to construct ideologies. In his opinion, the properties of the media, “tend to lead to a reproduction and legitimation of the ideology of the political, socio-economic and cultural elites” [18]. The same conclusions were drawn by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) in their seminal work Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. By conducting a content analysis of the U.S. top newspapers, they concluded that mass media operate within a “propaganda model” whose chief goal is to sustain the elite’s domination.

Although the propaganda model has been met with strong criticism, there is no doubt that mass media affects political behaviour [19]. Scholars agree that mass media frame public issues, indicating which elements of reality must be taken into account and which can be disregarded. By framing I mean, following Robert M. Entman’s definition, “selecting and highlighting some facts of events and issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution” [20]. Frames manifest themselves in specific words, phrases, symbols, and images that the receiver is familiar with. In his study of media framing and U.S., foreign policy, Entman proposes to classify media frames into two categories: procedural and substantive. While the former have “a narrower focus and function”, the latter perform at least two out of four main functions while covering political events, issues, and actors: 1) defining effects or conditions as problematic; 2) identifying causes; 3) conveying a moral judgment; and, 4) endorsing remedies or improvements [21]. To explain how frames are produced and absorbed, Entman designed a “cascade model” which involved — apart from mass media — other political actors such as government officials, politicians, experts, and audiences (Figure 1). While political authorities set frames, the media (being influenced by experts) either reinforce or modify them while audiences either accept or reject frames. The more a frame is congruent with schemas prevailing in the political culture, the more successful it becomes [22].


Cascading network activation
Figure 1: Cascading network activation [23].


So far, Entman’s cascade model has served to describe news framing (Coombs, 2013). In this study, however, I use the model to analyse the role of magazines of opinion as institutions of political socialization, specifically their ability to ideologically frame political discourse on the Internet. The original cascade model explains the formation and evolution of news frames in the media debate on U.S. foreign policy after September 11, 2001. Unsurprisingly then, it pointed to the presidential administration as the prime source of framing with other major officials and politicians; the mainstream media and audiences served mainly as filters through which the frames were either accepted or rejected (whether consciously or unconsciously). In his model, Entman introduced the idea of spreading activation, which he borrowed from cognitive psychology; it also explained the importance of the order in which information was presented. Although every actor participates in the process of setting frames, “some actors have more power than others to push ideas to the news and then to the public” [24]. In the case of the media debate on U.S. foreign policy, a frame developed by the president and other high-level administration officials often becomes the dominant frame, at least in the early stages of the debate, activating and spreading “congruent thoughts and feelings in individuals’ knowledge networks, building a new event schema that guides responses to all future reports” [25].

In this study I explain how the cascade model developed by Entman and tested by other scholars researching on news frames can also explain how ideologies frame general political discourses. In the modified version of the model, the administration and leading politicians still set dominant frames; however, taking into account the nature of contemporary political life, they are able to set, first and foremost, procedural frames. In other words, they may highlight some facts of events or issues but fail to provide any wider context to their actions. Procedural frames are also the domains of the mainstream media — TV news channels and newspapers — which usually focus on concrete events and personalities [26]. In this sense, procedural framing refers to “any topic-specific frame based on considerations — where a consideration is defined as a reason for favouring one side of an issue over another” [27]. Consequently, procedural frames have an instant effect on how audiences perceive a specific issue but, being engaged separately from one another, cannot be used to frame together various issues. For example, one procedural frame is used in a discussion on abortion rights while another shapes a debate on the gender pay gap. Still another frame is employed in a debate on violence against women. It means that three different procedural frames are used, although the issues they frame form together one global discourse on women’s rights.

The cascade model, thus, needs one more element to answer how ideologies frame political discourse. While for Entman the media constitute one element, I suggest excluding from it the segment of magazines of opinion (Figure 2). Consequently, in the modified cascade model they should be treated as a separate institution of political socialization responsible for substantive framing, and as an intermediary between political actors, elites, experts, and mass media. In such a model, administration officials and high-profile politicians, together with mass media, develop and disseminate procedural frames referring to individual political actions. These frames allow audiences to learn how to perceive certain events and issues. For example, the ongoing issue of whether big-tech companies such as Facebook and Google should be split up or remain intact is often framed by politicians and mass media either as an antitrust, pro-consumer action or defence of free-market capitalism. Although these two procedural frames highlight the basic tenets of the issue, they are unable to interface with a global discourse on new technology and the Internet. This is only done by substantive frames that — as the modified cascade model suggests — are constructed by magazines of opinion (together with think tanks) in response to procedural frames. While the mainstream media (that is the media that are prevailing in the media system) disseminate procedural frames among the general public, substantive frames shape elite discourse as elites need ideological support to explain their actions (Woods, 1997).


Modified cascade model
Figure 2: Modified cascade model.


According to Entman [28], the “interface between journalists and elites is a key transmission point for spreading activation of frames”. Having said that, Entman underlines that it is very difficult — if not impossible — to determine which of the two has more power in the process of the construction of frames, as every case should be analysed individually. However, by separating procedural frames from substantive frames and, consequently, the mainstream media from magazines of opinion — as implied by the modified cascade model — it is possible to make at least three general observations. First, procedural frames precede the formation of substantive (ideological) frames. Still, it must be remembered that since the cascade model assumes the interconnection of all its elements, substantive frames may later affect procedural frames. Second, substantial frames help audiences to place individual issues in a wider discourse and, by doing so, assist individuals in understanding how they relate to prevailing ideologies. Third, while substantial frames are constructed by elites, they set — to borrow from Charles Wright Mills’ elitist theory — “the framework within which alternative policies can be formulated and debated” [29]. In other words, substantive frames limit the framework within which responses to problems are formulated, and allow elites to maintain their position.

Although substantive frames respond to various procedural frames, they always relate to their basic ideological foundations. As John Wilson [30] points out, “although ideologies display a tremendous variety, not only substantively (...) but also categorically (...), they do demonstrate certain uniformities in their essential features”. Consequently, ideologies, representing the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence [31], describe and provide answers to four general concepts: politics, economy, social change, and cultural change (Vincent, 1992). As such, these themes comprise four main substantive frames that shape political discourse. The strength and intensity of each of the frames, as well as the definitions of effects, identifications of causes and propositions of remedies which they offer, depend on an ideology and the priorities within its system of values and norms. For example, it can be hypothesized that liberals would engage the economy frame more often in their discourse, as economic relations are at the core of their set of beliefs. On the other hand, conservatives would prefer the social change frame or the cultural change frame since they give priority to such values as religion and family.



4. Technology discourse

In order to test the modified cascade model, I have carried out an analysis of political discourse on the nature of the Internet. Being a key part of contemporary technology discourse, it allows ideologies to frame general perception of the current digital revolution. As Steven E. Goldberg and Charles Strain [32] pointed out, “technology is not neutral because it embodies the choices made by society, but for the same reason it cannot be treated as an autonomous, impersonal force over which mankind has no control. (...) Technology and culture are mutually determining”. In other words, not only does technological progress affect the economic sphere of human activity, but it also brings about far-reaching changes in political, social, and cultural life. Another important feature of technology is, according to Canadian scholar John Goyder [33], its close relation to political power. As such, technological development modifies old elites and creates new ones, who must constantly establish (or re-establish) their positions of power. They do so by developing substantive frames that convey ideological perspectives on issues concerning various aspects of technological progress [34].

One of the major aspects of the current digital revolution, and — consequently — of technology discourse, is the development of the Internet. By the Internet I understand not only “an electronic communications network” [35], but also the entire industry that has expanded since the commercialization of the Internet in the first half of the 1990s: online marketing and public relations, social media, search engines, retailers, and artificial intelligence (AI). Consequently, the political discourse on the nature of the Internet would concern — among others — such topics as high-tech companies (e.g., Amazon, Google, Uber, and Facebook), digital economy and politics, the impact of social media on human behaviour and values, and surveillance. Although at first the Internet was generally perceived as only another mass medium and a new means of communication, later there prevailed a vision of the Internet as an encompassing force, capable of transforming economics and politics, together with the way people relate with one another (Morozov, 2009). However, contrary to the high expectations of the 1990s that the Internet age would create a better, more informed public, the present debate seems to focus largely on negative aspects of the digital world, such as the spread of online misinformation, hate speech, and surveillance [36].

People form their own opinions on various aspects of the Internet by being exposed to discourse. According to the modified cascade model, discourse constructs prevailing procedural frames, which are set on a daily basis by politicians and mass media, as well as social media (Quintelier, 2015). The latter affect political socialization especially of young users (Kahne and Bowyer, 2018). On the other hand, substantive frames, offering ideological explanations, are constructed by specialized agents of political socialization, namely magazines of opinion and think tanks. As the latter often lack popular platforms to express their views, periodicals play a most significant role in setting substantive frames.



5. Research data and methods

In this study, the modified cascade model serves to analyse the discourse on the nature of the Internet on the example of two acclaimed U.S. periodicals of opinion: the conservative bi-weekly National Review and liberal weekly The Nation. The National Review, founded in November 1955 by William F. Buckley Jr., has been regarded as the epitome of the American conservatism [37]. In his study of U.S. politics, James Young [38] described the magazine as “an ecumenical meeting place for a wide range of conservative thinkers. (...) Some contributors were utilitarian free marketeers, and others stood for ‘virtue’, tradition, and an ‘objective moral order’”. Consequently, the National Review stands for capitalism and tradition while opposing big government, often understood as a synonym for socialism. Although it may seem that conservatives distrust technological progress, their wide support for Newt Gingrich’s Third Wave information age in the first half of the 1990s, proves otherwise. On the one hand, conservatism perceives the Internet as a great opportunity for the American industry; on the other, it fears the digital revolution may lead to a collapse of traditional values.

The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States. In his study of American periodicals, Theodore Peterson [39] summed up the magazine’s position as “the elder statesman among the journals of opinion in the twentieth century”. Since its foundation soon after the Civil War, The Nation has been a platform for liberalism; at present it considers itself “progressive” with its main goal to speak “the truth to power to build a more just society”. What exactly is modern progressivism? Joseph E. Stiglitz explained that it is a movement that “puts a high value on innovation — both technological innovation and social innovation” [40]. The progressive agenda is taken from the Enlightenment, believing that “through national and scientific enquiry we can learn, and what we learn can be used to improve well-being” [41]. Technology, then, appears to be a natural ally for liberalism and progressivism as it epitomises the movement’s core values: progress and science. Still, with high-tech companies achieving near monopolistic positions in the digital market, technological development reveals its darker side that progressivists cannot ignore.

In order to examine both magazines’ discourses on the nature of the Internet, quantitative and qualitative content analysis was performed on all published issues of the National Review and The Nation for the following six years: 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2019. Such a time span made it possible to examine the frequency of the usage of substantive frames by both periodicals. In addition, it made it possible to develop qualitative inferences by observing modifications within substantive frames themselves, i.e. how they defined effects as problematic, identified causes, and which remedies they endorsed throughout that period. Previous studies indicated that the Internet became a topic debated from a political perspective in the second half of the 1990s, thus 1995 seemed to be the right place to start research (Hösl, 2019). Whereas the literature on quantitative and qualitative research methods and techniques is manifold, here I used the methods of content analysis and textual analysis as described by James A. Anderson [42]. The units of analysis in the research were whole articles that concerned the Internet, as broadly defined in the previous section. The set of categories was constructed deductively and comprised four general substantive frames — politics, economics, social change, and cultural change — used in political discourse.

The political frame defines an issue as a political problem, identifies causes in political actions, and provides political remedies. This frame often includes words and phrases such as censorship, democracy, government, legislation, politics, and politicians. In the economy frame, causes and effects, as well as remedies are dictated by the economy. Consequently, this frame is established by words related to economy: business, monopoly, capitalism, free market, economy, and trade. The political and economics frames are fairly easy to locate in a discourse and interpret. The social change and cultural change frames, on the other hand, are more nuanced since they may permeate themes associated with the other frames. The social change frame provides a conceptual foundation either for promoting or resisting social change [43]. Here social change is understood, first and foremost, as changes in rules of social behaviour and value systems. Therefore, the social change frame presents an issue as affecting the social system while searching for remedies for it in social responses. The social change frame often highlights such aspects as human relations, shared values, moral systems, family, and tradition. The cultural change frame resembles the social change frame as it, too, refers to developments in human existence. However, the cultural change frame focuses on general modification of society, especially its political culture — defined here as a common perception of a political system and its legitimacy. As such, this frame usually refers to the rights of privacy, political and social hierarchies, and the political system as a whole. Although one article can contain more than one frame, in this research each article was attributed to one, prevailing frame. Such a decision was necessary to maintain the clarity of analysis.

The content analysis was designed to answer the following four research questions:

R1: Which substantive frames did the two magazines employ in their discourses on the nature of the Internet?

H1: The two periodicals used the four main substantive frames in their discourses: political frame, economy frame, social change frame, and cultural change frame.

R2: What were the quantitative differences in the usage of the substantive frames between the magazines?

H2: Depending on the core values of each ideology, one substantive frame takes precedence over others. Regardless of the discourse, conservatives employ the social change frame more often whereas liberals/progressives frame their debate, first and foremost, with the economy frame.

R3: Which topics concerning the Internet did the magazines respond to through their substantive frames?

H3: According to the modified cascade model, substantive frames respond to procedural frames that manifest themselves in everyday political actions. Therefore, substantive frames are built around those topics that closely relate to the ideologies they represent. It means that topics prevailing in a conservative discourse are often in minority in a liberal/progressive discourse and vice versa.

R4: What were the qualitative differences in the usage of the substantive frames between the magazines?

H4: Although various ideologies use the same substantive frames, these frames often provide contradicting effects, causes, as well as judgements and remedies to the framed issues.



6. Quantitative analysis

The examined articles were collected from Gale General OneFile ( online database which provides access to current issues, as well as an archive, from 1977 onwards, of both the National Review and The Nation. In order to locate text that met the set of categories, search keywords, which were used, comprised of words and phrases associated with the four substantive frames, as explained earlier. In total, 43 articles of the National Review and 57 of The Nation met the set of categories and were included in analysis. Taking into account that the National Review is a bi-monthly while The Nation is weekly, it can be generalized that in the examined years both magazines paid around the same amount of attention to the Internet. The quantitative content analysis indicated that the research period can be divided into two parts: the first spanning the years 1995 through 2005; the other starting in 2010. The mid-1990s marked the apogee of the rapid commercialization of the Internet with America Online and Prodigy providing access to millions of Americans while Amazon and eBay appeared online. Yahoo! made its debut on the stock market, with an initial public offering on 12 April 1996 [44]. The Internet became a political issue with U.S. Congressional debate on its regulation, resulting in the adoption of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (H&Uouml;sl, 2019). In the following years the Internet remained an important element of political discourse, manifested in a doubling of number of articles on the Internet in 2000 in both magazines relative to 1995. The start of the new century was marked by the bust of the dot-com bubble, leading to a fall of Nasdaq by almost 77 percent, with many Internet companies vanishing. In the aftermath of the crash, political discourse lost interest in the Internet. In 2005 the number of articles on the Internet fell in both magazines to its lowest level, with just three in the National Review and only one in The Nation (Table 1). Since then, however, with the ‘reinvention’ of the Internet as Web 2.0 and an on-going expansion of Google and Facebook among others, the Internet — again — has returned as an important political issue as seen in the pages of the National Review and The Nation.


Table 1: Number of published texts that met research’s set of categories.
YearNational ReviewThe Nation


Although both magazines generally treated the Internet with the same attention, they differed in the selection of issues that they covered. By comparing the content of the two periodicals from each year, general trends could be discerned. In the National Review, each of its four articles in 1995 covered a different issue: censorship, online threats, hackers, and misinformation (Table 2; Figure 3). A similar variety of topics were found in 2000; however, three out of eight articles concerned high-tech companies, associated mostly with Microsoft. Two articles referred to the problem of taxing the Internet. Five years later, when the number of the articles reached its lowest, one referred to pornography, one to online censorship in general and one introduced blogging. In 2010 the National Review published seven articles, with two that were concerned with high-tech companies while another two dedicated to social media. Pornography, democracy, and censorship in general each were covered by one article. In 2015, four articles — half of all the year’s corpus — were devoted to Net neutrality. The remaining four texts covered high-tech companies, social media, national security, and public shaming. Finally, in 2019, six out of 13 referred to high-tech companies, three concerned free speech and another two President Donald Trump. In addition to this, one text covered social media while another examined online racism.


Table 2: Issue selection by the National Review: Percentage comparison (1995–2019).
IssuesPercentage of all Internet-related issues in a given year
Blogs  33.3   
Censorship25 33.314.3  
Democracy   14.3  
Donald Trump     15.4
Free speech     23.1
High-tech companies 37.5 28.612.546.2
National security    12.5 
Net neutrality    50 
Online journalism 12.5    
Online threats25     
Pornography  33.314.3  
Public shaming    12.5 
Racism 12.5   7.7
Social media   28.612.57.7
Taxes 25    
Technology 12.5    



Issue selection by National Review
Figure 3: Issue selection by the National Review: percentage comparison (1995–2019).


A similar variety of issues was found in The Nation’s discourse on the nature of the Internet (Table 3; Figure 4). Out of eight examined articles from 1995, two referred to technology in general, two concerned online activism while another two referred to online censorship. The remaining two covered democracy and online culture. A more comprehensive selection of issues was observed in 2000 when out of 15 articles, as many as 10 were devoted to high-tech companies (first and foremost Microsoft). Online activism and Napster were each covered by two articles while taxing the Internet was the topic of one article. On the other hand, democracy was the subject of the only article in 2005. In 2010 out of 12 articles three referred to Net neutrality, another three referred to WikiLeaks while two referred to the Internet’s impact on mainstream media. The remaining four texts concerned the following issues: high-tech companies, privacy, education, and poetry. In 2015 there were 12 texts with the greatest attention on online surveillance (3) and mainstream media (3). Two articles referred to high-tech companies while the remaining four covered Net Neutrality, social media, online activism, and big data. In 2019 three out of nine concerned fake news, two online surveillance, and two technology in general. Abortion and censorship were the subject of one article each.


Table 3: Issue selection by The Nation: Percentage comparison (1995–2019).
IssuesPercentage of all Internet-related issues in a given year
Abortion     11.1
Big data    8.3 
Censorship25   8.311.1
Democracy12.5 100   
Education   8.3  
Fake news     33.3
High-tech companies 66.7 8.316.7 
Media   16.725 
Napster 13.3    
Net neutrality   258.3 
Online activism2513.3    
Online culture12.5     
Poetry   8.3  
Privacy   8.3  
Social media    8.3 
Surveillance    2522.2
Taxes 6.7    
Technology25    22.2
WikiLeaks   25  



Issue selection by The Nation
Figure 4: Issue selection by The Nation: percentage comparison (1995–2019).


When it comes to the quantitative usage of substantive frames, there were some similarities between the two magazines. In the examined period, both the National Review and The Nation used, first and foremost, the political frame to shape their individual discourses on the nature of the Internet (Figures 5 and 6). With the exception of 2005, the political frame prevailed in the National Review’s discourse. In the case of The Nation, however, the domination of the political frame was less significant, for in 2000 and 2015 it was surpassed by the economic frame. Nevertheless, both journals employed the economic frame almost as often. While the National Review employed the cultural change frame only once, in The Nation’s discourse it was present in all examined years, with the exception of 2005. Moreover, the conservative magazine used the social change frame almost as often as the economic frame (Table 4). In The Nation, on the other hand, the cultural change frame played a far more important role in the way the periodical’s discourse was shaped (Table 5).

In both magazines female writers were in the minority. Out of 43 three articles published in the conservative National Review only five were authored by female journalists (four by Heather Wilhelm, one by Sarah Schutte). In The Nation, representing liberal/progressive thought, 15 out of 57 articles were written by female journalists.


Usage of substantive frames by the National Review
Figure 5: The usage of substantive frames by the National Review.



Usage of substantive frames by The Nation
Figure 6: The usage of substantive frames by The Nation.



Table 4: The usage of substantive frames by the National Review.
Substantive frameNumber of framesPercentage of all articles
Political frame2251%
Economic frame1023%
Social change frame1023%
Cultural change frame12%



Table 5: The usage of substantive frames by The Nation.
Substantive frameNumber of framesPercentage of all articles
Political frame2545%
Economic frame1526%
Social change frame712%
Cultural change frame1017%




7. Qualitative analysis

Although the magazines’ discourses on the nature of the Internet were shaped by the same four substantive frames, these frames often provided different causes, effects, and solutions. The substantive frames responded to different procedural frames and — what is even more important — were constructed through distinctive ideologies. For example, the social change frame was used by the National Review to discuss the spread of online pornography. The Nation used the social change frame in its article on anti-abortion campaigns in social media. Although both issues — the unrestricted spread of pornography on the Internet and online campaigns against abortion rights — refer to social categories such as morality, human relations, and traditional values, they were examined by each periodical exclusively through its own ideological set of values. With the economic frame, both magazines utilized it in their debates over high-tech companies. Here the same substantive frame responded to the same procedural frames, but eventually offered contrasting explanations and solutions to a given problem.

Pornography can be regarded as a political symbol that stands for general political conservatism and its values (Peek, et al., 1982). Therefore, it is one of the key ideological issues in a conservative political discourse. The National Review’s two articles on the Internet and pornography included in the research were Thomas S. Hibbs’ “Rated X” [45] and “Gated or X-tated?” by Jonah Goldberg and Nick Schulz [46]. The first one, a book review of Pamela Paul’s Pornified (New York: Times Books, 2005), focuses on the role of the Internet in making pornography more popular and accessible. According to Hibbs, online pornography leads to “the steady demise in the longstanding taboo against pedophilia”. In Hibbs’ opinion, the isolation of the Internet viewer brings a number of social problems, including not only addiction but also toleration of “sadomasochistic sex and bestiality”. One of the reasons why online pornography is omnipresent in American households, explains Hibbs, is liberalism with its “values deficit”. In the second article, Goldberg and Schulz explain why the Internet is a dangerous place for minors, especially relative pornography. “The only thing separating a ten-year-old from YouPorn is a disclaimer telling visitors they must be over 18”, assert Goldberg and Schulz. They criticize the Internet’s open culture that has transformed “a sensible design principle into something approaching ideology”. Consequently, imply Goldberg and Schulz, the Internet offers no space for conservatives who are outnumbered by left-wing online activists.

In both cases, the social change frame performs four functions. First, it explains that the problematic effect is unrestrained spread of pornography in America. Secondly, liberalism and left-wing ideologies are indicted as the cause. Third, the frame delivers moral judgment, a disregard for traditional values demonstrated allegedly by liberals and others. Finally, it offers a remedy, which is the restoration of conservative morality and values in cyberspace. In addition, the social change frame performs one more function by providing an ideological context to much narrower procedural frames.

Abortion rights are one of the chief features of modern liberal and progressive thought [47]. Much as is the case with pornography and conservatism, abortion rights serve for some as a political symbol of the core values of liberalism and progressivism. In The Nation in December 2019 Zoë Carpenter article introduced Janet Folger Porter, “an anti-abortion evangelist once considered too extreme for many conservatives”, using social media and other means to lobby for state and federal legislation banning abortion [48]. What until very recently was considered marginal and controversial has become mainstream in American politics in part due to social media. According to Carpenter, social media have not only provided anti-abortionists with a new platform to express their opinions. Social media also changed the way in which contemporary politics is seen, giving preference to performance over logic and facts. As a result, there has been a growing ideological radicalization in American society, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and recent decisions by some courts on abortion and other social issues.

There are four main functions performed by the social change frame in Carpenter’s article in The Nation. First, the frame indicates the problematic effects of the use of social media by right-wing extremists, gaining a nation-wide platform to popularize their opinions. Second, it recognizes that a conservative ideology has become more radical. Third, the frame provides moral judgement, conservatives revert social progress. Last, but not least, it offers a remedy, calling on progressives to actively engage in politics, in cyberspace, courtrooms, and Congress. In addition, the social change frame responds to a procedural frame, setting it in an ideological context.

Both ideologies — conservatism and liberalism/progressivism — provide a distinctive set of ideas concerning desired economic relations. Consequently, they represent opposite poles when it comes to issues such as the role of the government in economy and anti-trust legislation. In the last few years this ideological dispute over the economy has affected the technology discourse, as high-tech companies have become key players in the U.S. and global finances. Unsurprisingly, the National Review and The Nation responded to high-tech companies and anti-trust legislation procedural frames by engaging the substantive economy frame. However, the effects, causes, judgements, and remedies provided by this frame differed significantly for each magazine. One example of how the National Review perceives the problem is provided in an article by Kevin D. Williamson, article entitled “David behind the wheel” [49]. The Nation’s views are represented by Zephyr Teachout’s 2015 article [50]. Teachout is a member of The Nation’s editorial board. Both articles appeared around the same time and referred to a Congressional debate whether high-tech corporations such as Facebook, Uber, and Google should be treated as monopolies.

Williamson’s article describes various problems faced by Uber in the United States, among which are legislative efforts in New York and elsewhere to curb its business model. According to Williamson, contrary to what some politicians maintain, Uber provides a much more efficient and honest service than traditional taxis. In his opinion, any attempts to suspend Uber’s operations are orchestrated by left-wing ideologues epitomized in the article, first and foremost, by “the Sandinista regime of Mayor Bill de Blasio”. As Williamson points out, Uber not only represents a new business model but also pushes forward technological progress. Therefore, political actions taken against Uber, symbolize “the timeless confrontation between concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, the lopsided contest between a few highly connected people with a lot to lose and a lot of unconnected people with a little gain”. Consequently, far from being a monopoly itself, Uber is “David behind the wheel” confronting traditional monopolies.

Contradictory arguments are offered by Teachout in The Nation. New anti-trust legislation should be introduced to break up contemporary monopolies, including high-tech companies, much as it was the case with Standard Oil at the start of the twentieth century. Contrary to a common view in the U.S., mergers are not natural and do not serve consumer interests. According to Teachout, the federal government’s lack of desire to confront corporations starteds in the Ronald Reagan era, influenced by neoliberal thought. Even after the crash of 2008, opinions against monopolies were limited to the banking sector. Happily, added Teachout, more people demand concrete action from the government.

Both articles respond to the same procedural frame, utilized by politicians and mass media in their ongoing discussion over high-tech companies and antitrust legislation. Therefore, both articles provide this procedural frame with a larger, ideological context that sets the frame in a global discourse on technology and economy. It is accomplished by a substantive frame, which in both cases is the economy frame. In Williamson’s article the frame indicates the problematic effect as political regulations imposed on Uber and other high-tech companies. The cause is “the Sandinista regime of Mayor Bill de Blasio” and other left-wing ideologues. The frame also delivers a judgement. Regulation hampers progress and deprives people of its positive effects. Keeping the government away from high-tech companies is, then, the prescribed remedy. The economy frame employed by The Nation offers differing answers. For Teachout, the problematic effect is the lack of proper regulation. The neoliberal revolution in the U.S. economy, started by the Reagan administration, was identified as the cause. The frame provides the judgement according to which the interest of monopolies takes priority over interests of society. Unsurprisingly, the frame arrives at a solution in direct opposition to the remedy offered by Williamson.



8. Discussion

The quantitative and qualitative analysis, performed in this study, produced interesting findings. By indicating similarities and differences in the two magazines’ engagement of substantive frames, as well as their issue selection and response to procedural frames, the examination proved the practicability of a modified cascade model. According to the model, magazines of opinion (together with think tanks) construct substantive frames that provide individual issues with an ideological context. As such they respond to procedural frames, which are used by politicians and mass media, and set particular issues in one thematic political discourse. Therefore, some magazines that provide opinions should be regarded as institutions of political socialization that render ideological insights into current political debates.

The results of the analysis provided answers to four research questions. The first research question was: Which substantive frames did the two magazines employ in their discourse on the nature of the Internet? After a close reading of available literature and evaluation of previous research on media framing, four substantive frames were deductively identified in the examined discourse — political, economy frame, social change, and cultural change. Content analysis of a sample of articles selected from the National Review and The Nation published between 1995 and 2019 confirmed that these four substantive frames shaped discourses in the magazines. Although these frames may at first appear as somehow imprecise and capacious, the very nature of substantive frames — as carriers and distributors of ideological tenets in political discourses — demands a certain degree of generalization. The frames are constructed around the basic notions of each ideology that, first and foremost, describe a desired state of political, economic, social, and cultural relations in society. Each frame referred to a particular set of categories, which made it possible to comprehensively arrange text in articles and evaluate the examined discourse on the nature of the Internet. Therefore, the first hypothesis that in the analysed discourse the two magazines of opinion used the four substantive frames has been proved correct.

The second research question was: What were the quantitative differences in the usage of substantive frames between the two magazines? According to the second hypothesis, the core values of each ideology affect the preference of one substantive frame over others. Quantitative content analysis did not fully support this assumption. In both the National Review and The Nation there was a noticeable prepotency of the political frame in their discourses on the nature of the Internet over the entire period examined. It suggests that each ideology, regardless of its core values, focuses, first and foremost, on the political aspect of a framed issue. Such was the case with the analysed discourse where both magazines framed the Internet as a political problem, identified causes in political actions, and provided political remedies. In addition, both journals equally engaged the economy frame, although it was not as prevailing in the examined discourse as the political frame. In each case the economy frame was found dominant in around one fourth of the articles. However, while the usage of the frame by the National Review was somehow regular, it fluctuated in The Nation, largely dominating technology discourse in 2005 and 2015, when high-tech companies drew close attention. Favouring federal regulations over monopolies, liberals and progressives seemed more aware and critical of the growing position of high-tech corporations in the U.S. economy. Conservatives, on the other hand, accepted it as something as much natural as positive, and did not treat it as an important issue.

High differences were observed in the usage of the social change and cultural change frames. In the conservative National Review the social change frame was utilized as often as the economy frame. In The Nation it comprised a little more than 10 percent of the entire sample. As this substantive frame responded to procedural frames concerning negative issues such as pornography or morals, it suggests that conservatives fear the Internet may lead to an erosion of traditional values. Since liberals and progressives opt for both technological and social progress, these issues are of marginal importance to their discourse. On the other hand, the cultural change frame dominated in 10 out of 57 articles (17 percent) published in The Nation while the National Review engaged this frame only once. As the cultural change frame refers to a profound renewal of American political culture, it indicates that liberals and progressives more often than conservatives see in the digital revolution a means capable of transforming not only the U.S. political system but also social and economic relations.

The third research question, concerning topic selection by the two magazines, was partially answered earlier. According to the hypothesis, topics prevailing in the conservative discourse are often in the minority on the liberal/progressive agenda. Without a doubt, pornography is a primary issue for conservatives whereas abortion rights act as a significant issue for liberals and progressives. Another pair of issues in this category comprises national security — one of the priorities for conservatives — and Napster and the music industry — as liberals and progressives are sensitive to issues concerning culture. Another difference in topic selection can be observed in the case of controversial issues that demand a strong, ideological response. For the National Review it was Net neutrality, submitted by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 2015, that many conservatives feared would impose federal control over the Internet. For The Nation, on the other hand, it was online surveillance that epitomized the uncontrolled position of high-tech companies. Conservatives accepted that problem as a part of the capitalistic system and did not pay much attention to it. It may be surprising that topics such as racism and public shaming were covered by the conservative National Review whereas the two belong to the liberal/progressive agenda. In both cases, however, they served for the magazine to criticize and ridicule liberal “sensitivity” over unfair ethnic representations in social media. Such a strategy was not observed in the case of The Nation. Other major topics, such as censorship and democracy, were present in both magazines.

The fourth and final research question was: What were the qualitative differences in the usage of the substantive frames between the magazines? According to the modified cascade model, magazines of opinion set substantive frames in response to the emergence of procedural frames, created and disseminated by politicians and mass media. These frames perform at least two out of the four chief functions that allow them to set an issue in a broader political context. It was hypothesized that although various ideologies use the same substantive frames, these frames usually provide contradicting causes, effects, judgements, and remedies to the framed issues. In other words, the social change frame set by the conservative National Review indicates different causes and effects, as well as gives different judgements and remedies, than The Nation, which is liberal/progressive. The qualitative analysis proved this hypothesis correct. It turned out that even when the two periodicals responded to the same procedural frame with the same substantive frame, they differed in offered explanations, thanks to the nature of political ideologies. Although all ideologies focus on the same aspects of the surrounding reality, they often offer opposite solutions as to the ultimate state of relations and the means to achieve it. These differences are mirrored in substantive frames which are discursive manifestations of political ideologies. All of the examined frames point to the ideological roots of political actions. Frames engaged by the National Review pointed at liberalism and undefined “left-wing ideologies” behind each Internet-related problem described by the magazine. Similarly, The Nation blamed conservatism.



9. Conclusions

In this study the modified cascade model served to indicate how two respected U.S. journals of opinion, the National Review and The Nation, filtered particular issues concerning the Internet into a global technology discourse between 1995 and 2019. In that process politicians and mass media produced and disseminated procedural frames covering various issues and topics such as online activism, high-tech companies, and antitrust legislation, and the impact of social media on everyday relations, to name only a few. The magazines responded to these procedural frames with setting their own substantive frames — political, economy, social change, and cultural change. These four substantive frames absorbed a number of seemingly unrelated issues and connected one to another. What made it possible was ideologies — conservatism and liberalism/progressivism — with their own specific values and ideas. Since the cascade model assumes the interconnection of all of its elements, substantive frames may later impact procedural frames. The entire communicative process of constructing and disseminating procedural and substantive frames, then, allows the elites to establish and re-establish their political, economic, and social positions through political discourse. End of article


About the author

Krzysztof Wasilewski is an associate professor in the Humanities Department at the Koszalin University of Technology (Politechnika Koszalińska). His research interests include media discourses, migration studies, and the role of ideology in technology discourses; he has been awarded national and foreign grants and stipendships: International Visegrad Fund (Budapest), John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies (Berlin), Cambridge University, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Polish National Science Center.
ORCID: 0000-0002-5378-2822.
E-mail: krzys [dot] wasilewski [at] gmail [dot] com



The research was funded by a Miniatura 3 Grant from the Polish National Science Center (Narodowe Centrum Nauki) (no. 2019/03/X/HS5/00447).



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Editorial history

Received 8 June 2020; revised 16 July 2020; accepted 17 July 2020.

To the extent possible under law, this work is dedicated to the public domain.

When technology meets ideology: Frame analysis of ideological discourses on the nature of the Internet in American magazines of opinion (1995–2019)
by Krzysztof Wasilewski.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 8 - 3 August 2020