The internet has undoubtedly democratised the public space, allowing a range of voices previously silenced or ignored. But what has been the net result of this process?
Freedom of choice is not always good for democracy. This observation is at the heart of University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein’s book “Republic.com 2.0” (an update of “Republic.com” in 2001), which argues that our country’s political discourse is fracturing in the information age. Sure, the Internet has been a boon to democracy in all sorts of ways, Sunstein acknowledges — but if new technology gives us unprecedented access to information, it also gives us more ways to avoid information we don’t like. Conservatives are increasingly seeking only conservative views, liberals are seeking only liberal views, and never the twain shall meet.
Sunstein’s career has bridged the political divide. As an attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of the Legal Counsel, he was an advisor to both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He once clerked for the liberal Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and now teaches at the University of Chicago, known for some of its right-leaning faculty. In his free time, Sunstein advises Barack Obama, a former law school colleague.
What gets lost in these polarized times, Sunstein writes, are traditional civic virtues like civility, self-criticism and open-mindedness. He uses experiments and statistical analyses to back that up: One study of hyperlinking patterns on the Web shows that political bloggers rarely highlight opposing opinions — of 1,400 blogs surveyed, 91 percent of links were to like-minded sites. A central problem, Sunstein argues, is that Americans now think of themselves more as consumers than as citizens. When it comes to the Internet, we demand the right to reinforce our own beliefs without embracing the responsibility to challenge them.
Sunstein is probably partly correct but I suspect he underestimates the importance of citizens being able to engage with the media. The breakdown of the media elite is surely a good thing and the web has certainly done that (and let’s not forget that in many countries, such as China, simply dissenting can be a major crime.)
The internet – especially those of us who regularly campaign for the rights of bloggers in various countries around the world – keeps the issue of free speech alive, rather than the narrow definitions offered by the mainstream media. They report only on what they deem important. The Committee to Protect Bloggers recently offered this gem:
The Committee to Protect Bloggers has agitated on behalf of people whose personal philosophies are repellent. But we have exerted our efforts not truly on their behalf but on behalf of freedom, the freedom to speak unpopular thoughts without government interference. I have noticed a tendency to confuse this sort of pressure, to keep governments out of the free speech business, with support of the contents of that speech. The CPB will advocate for anyone whose government is attempting to keep them from speaking their minds through intimidation and physical violence.
The whole idea of the CPB, or perhaps its ideal, is one of a society of open discourse, uncompromised by governmental interference. In other words, our goal is a free marketplace of ideas. In fact, when it comes to that marketplace, we are laissez-faire in the extreme. If an idea doesn’t float, it doesn’t deserve to. And, just as in a democracy a citizen is obligated to do his or her duty by voting, in a marketplace of ideas, the same obligation ensues.