I have always been something of an internet contrarian, claiming since 1996 – despite having worked in the internet industry the entire time – that the whole thing is overrated. And now, finally, I have someone on my side. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, who President Obama named head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, recently published a critique of the internet.
Specifically, Sunstein claims that the Internet creates self- reinforcing communication systems, in which internet users choose to associate solely with like-minded individuals, thereby reducing the diversity of opinion to which they are exposed, and so become more and more fixed in their viewpoints. Sunstein is not the first to discuss this, and it seems fairly common sense that single-viewpoint exposure will narrow one’s range of beliefs.
But Sunstein adds empirical data from several studies he has worked on. He had groups of Democrats and Republicans fill out surveys and then enter discussion groups with like-minded citizens. After the discussion groups, they again filled out surveys. The post-discussion surveys showed significant decrease in diversity of opinion relative to the pre-discussion surveys. Again, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s good to have the data to back it up.
Taking this concept a step further, Sunstein comments on the negative impact these self-reinforcing systems have on democracy. For him, the free flow of ideas is the essence of the democratic process. He quotes Alexander Hamilton, who believed “the jarring of opinions” would help promote thoughtful deliberation and curb excesses.
But in a world of Fox News and the blogosphere, is Sunstein simply tilting at windmills? Have Hamilton’s jarring opinions been swept away by the internet, much like travel agents and your daily paper? To some extent, and I say this with a heavy heart, I think the answer to both those questions is yes. It’s hard to see a Fox Newser switching to CNN, just as I don’t visualize a lot of Daily Kosers heading over to Ann Coulter’s pleasant little blog.
Of course, the editors of various online publications could address this by adding opposing viewpoints to their mix. Perhaps Daily Kos could add a couple of conservative columnists, or even have a “Conservative’s Corner” on the home page. But would that even help? According to Sunstein, only 2% of Daily Kos readers are Republicans so it might be too late. And it might drive away Daily Kos readers, who could leave to visit a site that caters more purely to their liberal views.
If editors of politically tilted websites and publications can’t, for business reasons, add diverse opinions, then maybe we all need to do it ourselves. Perhaps each liberal should read one conservative article a day, and vice versa. Of course this will take discipline, and sometimes even holding our noses, but if it helps promote a Hamiltonian jarring of opinions, isn’t it worth it?