The Lippmannian Device

The Lippmannian Device

Developed by the Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam, this tool scrapes Google for the resonance of search terms across a set of webpages.

Last modified: 15.04.2015

The Lippmannian Device is named after the American journalist and pragmatist Walter Lippmann. Writing in the interwar period Lippmmann criticized prevalent and simplistic ideas that public opinion is in a straightforward manner the foundation of democracy. To achieve true people's rule, he argued, is a more complicated affair. The first reason is that citizens in modern societies are not engaged members of the public on a daily basis. They do not naturally and spontaneously have public opinions. The second reason is that when they do, it is often the result of a break with their everyday routines, some sort of emergency that puts them in a situation where they can no longer agree on how to procceed. If such an agreement was straightforward, the formation of a concerned public would, according to Lippmann, simply not occur.

This leads to the question of how disagreement is represented. That is: how do citizens obtain an overview of different positions in a controversy that they can subsequently decide to support or not? Traditionally, this responsibility falls to the newspapers, but Lippmmann noted that modern media (already in the 1920s) tend to favour certain positions that are already supported by strong and authoritative actors. The Lippmmannian Device tries to solve the problem by agonstically profiling the actors in a controversy. It simply asks Google to return search results for a range of issue related key words across the webpages of the actors. This gives an indication, not about who is wrong or who is right, but about who has a stake in which questions.  


Use the tool (requires a Firefox plugin)




The analysis is quantitative in the sense that the tool counts the occurrence of a keyword on a website. But it requires you to make a qualitative assessment of the issue terms you want to query and the websites you select to query them on. If you have been running several google scrapes for the same project (happens quite often), a tool is available to merge archived results. Below is an example of how we have used the Lippmanian Device for a TANT-Lab project on vaccination controversies.


Example: Which immunization programmes spark controversy?

When the debate on declining public support for the MMR vaccine re-emerged in February 2015 we decided to map the terrain that a concerned member of the public has to navigate when he or she seek information about immunization programmes online. We first built a corpus of websites dedicated to the issue of vaccination (whether pro or con particular vaccines or immunization in general). We then decided to find out which websites cared about which (potentially) vaccine preventable diseases.

We designed a set of Google queries for 14 of the most commonly discussed diseases in relation vaccination and used the Lippmannian device to see where they had resonance across our list of websites. Below is a selection of radar diagrams showing the different resonance profiles of our query across four of the most prominent sites in the corpus.

Most of the above sites (except the CDC) adopt a critical or sceptical stance towards vaccines, but it is clear that they are not equally invested in the same types of immunization programmes. Sanevax, for instance, is particularly preoccupied with the side effects of vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV) to prevent cervical cancer, while Ageofautism concentrates mainly on the MMR vaccine.