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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Do Bloggers Threaten Democracy?

Cass Sunstein says the internet generally and those evil bloggers particularly - lefties are specifically identified - ruin the political discourse and threaten democracy:

The rise of the Daily Me threatens democracy, by Cass Sunstein, Commentary, Financial Times: More than a decade ago the technology specialist, Nicholas Negroponte, prophesied the emergence of the Daily Me – a fully personalised newspaper. It would allow you to include topics that interest you and screen out those that bore or annoy you. If you wanted to focus on Iraq and tennis, or exclude Iran and golf, you could do that.

Many people now use the internet to create something like a Daily Me. ... For politics, the phenomenon is especially important in campaigns. Candidates in the US presidential race can construct information cocoons in which readers are deluged with material that is, in their eyes, politically correct. Supporters of Hillary Clinton construct a Daily Me that includes her campaign’s perspective but offers nothing from Barack Obama, let alone Mitt Romney.

What is wrong with the emerging situation? We can find a clue in a small experiment in democracy conducted in Colorado in 2005. About 60 US citizens were put into 10 groups. They deliberated on controversial issues, such as whether the US should sign an inter­national treaty to combat global warming and whether states should allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. The groups consisted of predominantly either leftwing or rightwing members, with the former drawn from left-of-centre Boulder and the latter from Colorado Springs, which tends to be right of centre. The groups, not mixed, were screened to ensure members conformed to stereotypes. ...

In almost every group, people ended up with more extreme positions. ... Aside from increasing extremism, discussion had another effect: it squelched diversity. Before members talked, many groups displayed internal disagreement. These were greatly reduced: discussion widened the rift between Boulder and Colorado Springs

Countless versions of this experiment are carried out online every day. The result is group polarisation, which occurs when like-minded people speak together and end up in a more extreme position in line with their original inclinations. ...

Group polarisation clearly occurs on the internet. For example, 80 per cent of readers of the leftwing blog Daily Kos are Democrats and fewer than 1 per cent are Republicans. Many popular bloggers link frequently to those who agree with them and to contrary views, if at all, only to ridicule them. To a significant extent, people are learning about supposed facts from narrow niches and like-minded others.

This matters for the electoral process. A high degree of self-sorting leads to more confidence, extremism and increased contempt for those with contrary views. We can already see this in the presidential campaign. It will only intensify when the two parties square off. ...

Polarisation, of course, long preceded the internet. Yet given people’s new power to create echo chambers, the result will be serious obstacles not merely to civility but also to mutual understanding and constructive problem solving. The Daily Me leads inexorably also to the Daily Them. That is a real problem for democracy

Would a world with absolutely no polarization be optimal, or is some degree of polarization - diversity of opinion and disagreement - better? If some polarization is healthy, and I don't think one identical mind in every body is optimal, than how much disagreement should there be and how do we know we are past the point of optimal disagreement and polarization? There seems to be this presumption that less polarization would be better, and maybe that's the case, but why is that necessarily true?

His argument, which is based on the Colorado study seems to be that a decline in within group polarization coupled with an increase in polarization between groups - as observed in the study - is bad. But again, why is it necessarily bad? It seems like you could argue the other way as well. Each group meets, brings a variety of ideas to the table, the group discusses the various ideas, some are discarded, and when they are done they have coordinated on a single idea rather than a muddled diversity that is more of a menu than a policy. That single, focused idea can then compete with an idea from the other side to see which idea proves to be the more popular, better idea in the end. It doesn't seem to me, for example, that the lock-step nature of Republicans in recent years has hurt their political cause, and it is the reemergence of diversity and in-fighting between groups within the party that has, to some degree undermined their effectiveness. I will acknowledge that the ideas the GOP brought forward were too much toward the polar extreme, but that may just because I don't agree with them and again, one has to explain why an idea closer to a pole is necessarily worse.

I'm not saying that more polarization is better, or worse, just that I don't see why either outcome is preordained and it seems like their ought to be more justification for a charge that the internet and bloggers are undermining Democracy by creating polarization than is given in the article. I also think we should ask if the internet has any advantages for democracy outside of the narrow frame examined here that might counterbalance any cost from polarization, but those potential benefits are ignored in the analysis.

One final note. It is assumed that blogs and the internet cause increased polarization. But I suppose one could also ask if blogs do, in fact, cause a significant increase in polarization over and above, say, Fox News and the Washington Times and ask for some justification for that assertion beyond a single study of ten groups of six people. But I don't have any additional evidence one way or the other, so I'll leave it at that.

    Posted by on Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 06:48 PM in Politics, Weblogs | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (63)

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