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October 1, 2003

Sunstein was right

I buy the argument in Cass Sunstein's book, Republic.com. Sunstein predicts that the Internet allows people to choose news and opinion that already interests them, while filtering out any views and facts that they find uncomfortable. As a result, the population splits into small communities of like-minded people who reinforce their shared views. Another result is a widening gap between those who are very interested in public issues and those who are not interested. Motivated citizens benefit from the availability of news and opinion online. Unmotivated ones can ignore the broader world much more then in the past, when they relied on TV for entertainment and the newspaper for want ads and crossword puzzles. Whether they liked it or not, in those days they saw news on television and on the front page of the newspaper.

Sunstein's book was mostly based on his theory of democracy and some experimental evidence about deliberation in narrow groups. His empirical evidence about the Internet was relatively weak. Thus many reviewers criticized him and offered anecdotes about the Web as a place for diverse public deliberations. Even Sunstein seemed to back off his own claims in the face of these criticisms. Yet I never thought he was proved wrong.

If Sunstein is right, then those who start off uninterested in politics will be less informed and therefore less likely to participate once they gain Internet access. Now a scholar named Markus Prior has demonstrated that Internet access indeed correlates with a lower probability of voting among people who start with a low interest in the news. (In other words, these people are more likely to vote if they do not have net access.) His article is entitled "Liberated Viewers, Polarized Voters: The Implications of Increased Media Choice for Democratic Politics," and it's in the Good Society.

October 1, 2003 12:47 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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