cyberbalkanization

In “Democracy and Filtering” (2004), Cass Sunstein argues that while the Web is a powerful tool for personal expression, the ability of users to shut out differing or contrary or views runs counter to the demands of a free society. What Sunstein fails to acknowledge, however, is that thanks to the Web, the remedy is just a click away.

Sunstein decries the group polarization that occurs when individuals seek out only those whose opinions they agree with, and claims that this “filtering out of noise and creation of our own personal echo chambers” tends to push like-minded groups to extremes.

He cites examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the current French view of the U.S., to racist and anti-racist movements, to the tendencies of sitting judges. In each case, within-group discussion is seen as reinforcing the prevailing view, resulting in a fragmentation/balkanization (cyberbalkanization is the term Sunstein coins in his 2001 book Republic.com) that is somehow inimical to democracy.

[In their “Networked Interactivity” study (1997), Sheizaf Rafaeli and Fay Sudweeks earlier documented the tendency of computer-mediated communication to reinforce agreement and consensus within groups.]

Sunstein asserts that for democracy to flourish, “People should be exposed to materials they would not have chosen in advance.” This was the function of “general-interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters,” which “forced upon us chance encounters with diverse others.” With the increasing personalization afforded by the Internet/Web (Sunstein uses the terms interchangeably), he claims the media is losing the ability to perform that critical role.

But even if the filter were perfect, that is, if you could shut out the “unwanted noise” and confine yourself only to news and opinion that supported and amplified your particular views, the new-media convention of hypertext linking would tend to expose you to differing and opposing views, embedded in the very content you were choosing.

For example, if you were intentionally limiting your news consumption to the purportedly right-leaning Drudge Report, you would find today’s main headline, “Ahmadinejad Blasts U.S.,” linking to Breitbart.com (slogan: “Just the News”), which in turn carries an AP report by Scheherezade Faramarzi headlined “Iran Tells U.N. Nuclear Program Peaceful.”

Venturing to the other end of the political spectrum, today’s Moveon.org homepage carries a feature titled “The Republicans Are Exploiting 9/11 to Win Re-Election.” Follow the series of links, though, and just a few clicks later you end up at a transcript of a State of the Union Address from www.whitehouse.gov. The end result of each partisan exercise leads, ironically and perhaps inevitably, to precisely the opposite view.

In the end, not even the Balkans can remain completely balkanized: the borders in that region are constantly changing. And no matter how distinct they may appear at any given time, it is impossible for the people living there to ignore their neighbors or exist outside the larger context of Europe and the world.

Similarly, no matter how polarized we may become here in the U.S., the fact that we must exist in a larger context of interconnected (and now hyperlinked) groups requires that we ultimately face those who disagree with us-whether that is on the Web, in a town hall debate, or at the polling place on election day.

New Yorkistan (from The New Yorker)

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