In the video featured below, Stanford University Professor Joshua Cohen, one of the founders of the burgeoning field of epistemic democracy (Yale hosted a conference on the subject), explains that democracy draws heavily on political deliberations that occur in the informal spheres of discourse. In this light he takes up the issue of the extent to which the internet is helping to improve the democratic nature of our public discourse, which he assesses along four traditional dimensions (Beneath the video I summarize his analysis, as well as provide an extensive discussion of his claims and related issues):
1) The deliberative/rational nature of informal public discourse.
2) Equal and low cost access to information.
3) Equal opportunity to influence political discourse.
4) Public discussions ought to be founded on information of quality and depth.
Has the internet advanced the deliberative/rational nature of informal public discourse?
Here he finds the evidence inconclusive. He notes that the ideal situation would be one in which the blogosphere served as an arena in which those who disagreed engaged each other, because he believes that would allow participants to better understand their own views, as well as those of others; ultimately, it would promote greater toleration. On these matters I’m intrigued as to what other bloggers think, because I’ve seen a great deal of debate occurring among ideologically dissimilar bloggers and these often devolve into petty and nasty debates where each party becomes less tolerant, more extreme, and even less knowledgeable of the other party’s arguments.1
I wonder why this is the case, because this fact runs contrary to what most deliberative democrats would predict. Perhaps the impersonal nature of the internet as a communication medium encourages or at least allows people to be harsher towards those with whom they disagree. The familiarity that comes with directly engaging someone may tend to breed respect but perhaps the internet fails to provide the conditions for such feelings of familiarity to emerge or to be deeply felt if they do exist, which might explain why erstwhile friends often have heated ideological arguments on Facebook.
An alternative explanation goes to the heart of political disagreement itself. According to this view, when people disagree about political matters it is because they are each operating with a different network of ideas through which they interpret and render intelligible a complex reality that would otherwise appear as a booming, buzzing confusion.2 Such a network of ideas, which we can term an ideology or world-view, provides one with a clear, distinct and easily accessible interpretation of the facts such that alternative interpretations come to appear as grounded in the stupidity, maliciousness or selfishness of those holding them. This alternative model of deliberation may help to explain why we find people engaged in sustained and heated disagreements even under conditions of direct engagement.
In their latest work, Dennis Thompson and Amy Gutmann argue that while parties who are familiar with and respect each other may disagree those aspects of their feelings for each other make it possible for them to compromise. They give the infamous example of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill who were able to come together and compromise on a major tax reform bill despite their deep disagreement with each other.
However, partisans on the internet, by and large, are unlikely to engage each other under the conditions in which genuine feelings of familiarity and mutual respect will develop and are unlikely to have any practical reasons to compromise. Given the absence of these enabling conditions and the fact that disagreeing parties disagree because of divergent world-views it seems unlikely that such parties by engaging each other will tend to come to better understand each other’s opinions or to become more tolerant of competing views. Rather, under the conditions of internet discourse we should not be surprised to find partisans becoming more extreme in their views and less tolerant of competing opinions.
In response one could claim that those partisan disagreements can be reconciled once they emerge from the informal realm of discourse into the formal realm, but it is also the case that what comes to be believed in the informal realm can significantly constrain what can be done in the formal realm, and I think the role the tea party has played in influencing the politics of the Republican party is a perfect example here. The political impact of the tea party also raises another issue which is the degree to which the political blogosphere is a series of hermetically sealed echo chambers and to the extent that it is what does that bode for democratic discussion?
As Cohen notes, most political blogs primarily link to posts and articles written by like-minded intellectuals. Although he recognizes that in theory such cloistering inclines people toward more extreme views he points out that most internet discussions occur among like-minded thinkers because ‘bloggers are a select community of strong partisans’, which suggests that the nature of blogging itself is not necessarily the cause of such cloistering. His reasoning seems to be that these partisan bloggers would be strong partisans in the absence of the blogosphere. He also claims that except in the work place we tend to be surrounded by people who share our political beliefs and thus there is no reason to believe that the self-cloistering on the internet has increased the degree of partisanship.
However, I am wary of Cohen’s qualified optimism, because as people shift from receiving their political information from mainstream media outlets to receiving it from political blogs–given that most will turn to blogs that share their ideological biases–they will become ever more extreme views. On this account stands to reason that the growth of the blogosphere may be causing ever increasing levels of partisanship.3 Relatedly, Cohen notes that the network of bloggers tends to be a community of strong partisans, but that says nothing about the followers of blogs who may have been less partisan in the absence of their exposure to political blogs.
Sunstein describes a study he helped conduct in two Colorado cities: Boulder (relatively liberal) and Colorado Springs (relatively conservative). The research team took a group of liberals from Boulder and a group of conservatives from Colorado Springs and asked each participant their views on three controversial issues. Afterwards, they put the liberals in a room with the liberals and did the same for the conservatives. The participants were given instructions to freely discuss the issues on which they had just been interviewed. Following the deliberations each participant was again asked to express his views on the three issues. Here are the three major findings as reported by Sunstein:
(1) Liberals, in Boulder, became distinctly more liberal on all three issues. Conservatives, in Colorado Springs, become distinctly more conservative on all three issues. The result of deliberation was to produce extremism — even though deliberation consisted of a brief (15 minute) exchange of facts and opinions! (I am speaking here of shifts in anonymous statements, not of shifts between individual views and group views — though groups were also more extreme than their individual members, predeliberation.)
(2) The division between liberals and conservatives became much more pronounced. Before deliberation, the median view, among Boulder groups, was not always so far apart from the median view among Colorado City groups. After deliberation, the division increased significantly.
(3) Deliberation much decreased diversity among liberals; it also much decreased diversity among conservatives. After deliberation, members of nearly all groups showed, in their post-deliberation statements, far more uniformity than they did before deliberation.
We think that this little experiment is useful, because it shows how deliberation among like-minded people can increase extremism, intensify polarization, and also squelch internal disagreement.
My suspicion is that the exact same phenomenon is occurring through people’s engagements with blogs, but at this point this is a purely speculative suggestion and one that needs to be investigated empirically.
If my suspicion is born out we should find that Americans (and possibly most Westerners) have been becoming increasingly ideological over the years. In fact, one unintended consequence of the blogosphere may be that people are spending more time thinking about politics, which really means more time becoming good ideologues. This latter point assumes that people don’t tend to spend much time in their non-internet lives discussing politics, and the wonderful thing about blogs is that one can easily comment on posts and thus join the discussion without having to start a blog of one’s own. (This may suggest that the virtue of the internet along dimension three may in fact be aiding the cause of increasing extremism in politics.)4
Has the internet helped equalize the equalize and lowered the cost to information?
Here the internet seems to have done a great service to the democratization of our politics.
Has the internet equalized the opportunity for citizens to influence political discourse?
The internet has surely made it nearly as easy to provide a service as to use one, but there still seems to be just a handful of big players on the scene.
Has the internet provided a forum for public discussions founded on information of depth and quality?
Cohen laments the fact that the internet is killing the newspaper, because on his view a successful public sphere is impossible without investigative journalism, which he claims can only be produced by major media outlets and that the blogosphere is ill-equipped to provide. On this topic, one should watch the great documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times.
I’d like to explore this question in more depth, because some political matters can be covered well by blogs such as policy debates. In this regard, bloggers are in a good position to employ social scientific research to assess policy debates so as to provide a more nuanced and sophisticated treatment of these matters than one traditionally gets from the major media outlets. And so long as one has the requisite intellectual abilities one can provide such a service solely with the aid of a computer, an internet connection and J-STOR access.5 So the question becomes what kind of investigative journalism does Cohen deem to be valuable? Surely, uncovering corruption is one thing that traditional journalism is very good at, but what other function does investigative journalism serve that cannot be taken on by bloggers?
This is not to suggest that there is not a great deal of value in investigative journalism in this respect, and I actually think that we’re approaching the point where some major foundations and billionaire philanthropists should convert NYT into a non-profit institution so that it can continue providing this excellent service to democracy.
1) I am not suggesting that this happens all the time, but I’ve witnessed this enough to deem it worth mentioning. I have seen instances in which such debates are very productive, but these tend to occur among philosophers and social scientists (or at least aspiring ones), but even these usually concern very technical issues. The problem with assessing such is matters, as Cohen notes, is that we don’t yet have much empirical research done in these areas to form competent judgments about the extent and nature of deliberation on the internet. I’d appreciate any help in finding such empirical studies.
2) For a discussion of these matters see, Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion; Philip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics“; and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Public Competence in Normative and Positive Theory: Neglected Implications of “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics””
3) And in fact Cohen acknowledges this point in his comments about how blogs are displacing newspapers, although for reasons I discuss below he laments this development.
4) As Converse famously demonstrated the vast majority of citizens are not ideologically constrained and are barely familiar with the most basic doctrines of liberalism and conservatism, and this lack of ideological constraint is a large part of why they are so ignorant. However, as Converse also notes, and as Jeff Friedman dramatically emphasized those who are ideologically constrained may be more knowledgeable but this comes at the price of their being more dogmatic. In other words, Rush Limbaugh may know a great many political facts, but most would doubt that his intensely ideological judgments of what we ought to do are worth very much.
5) Unfortunately, I cannot here discuss all the interesting and problematic issues this raises, particularly as it regards what these requisite intellectual abilities consists in; the nature and source of elite disagreement; and the competency of non-experts to adjudicate among such disagreements.