“Bone-chilling reading” wasn’t a term that got applied to many books about the internet at the time of the first dot com boom. But law professor Cass Sunstein’s 2001 book Republic.com was a work quite outside new economy boosterism and made for worrying reading. Dressed as a study of changing patterns of news media consumption, Republic.com drew a vivid picture of a future in which the cultural effects of digital technologies turned around and savaged the rational, open minded scientific tradition that had created them.
In Sunstein’s vision net users of the future are offered ever more customised media – endless football commentary for football fans, endless flyfishing news for fly-fishing fans. The immediate personal benefit to individuals is enormous, they never again have to spend time consuming news or entertainment of a sort that doesn’t interest them (no more Antiques Roadshow before the news!). But what seems like an unmitigated good , warned Sunstein, could permanently damage the fabric of democratic societies.
What happens when someone of moderately extreme views ceases to be exposed in any way to mainstream media, asks Sunstein? In fact, what happens when relatively moderate people, or those who are simple uninterested in politics stop consuming anything but their preferred sort of news? Once you start thinking about it, the dismal scenario more or less writes-itself: a world in which parental prejudices, instead of being challenged by exposure to new knowledge, are reinforced 100% by all news and entertainment that a child receives. Where people simply aren’t aware that other reasonable opinions on topics of all sorts even exist. The pattern is relentless – people indicate through their viewing or browsing habits that they are more interested in one sort of media coverage, their media adapts and never gives them anything else. They slowly become unaware that there is anything else, and when they finally meet people of differing opinions they can only assume that they are deranged, evil, or somehow non-human. And we all know what starts to happen when groups of people decide that other people aren’t people after all.
So goes the theory, and a persuasive one it is too. One of the most discussed flash animations on the web over the last year was EPIC 2014 a ‘future history’ describing the way in which personalised media combined with micro-publishing leads to a world where Google and Amazon more or less destroy the existing news media market. By 2014 it envisions a world where for the vast majority of users mass personalisation means a news media intake which is “narrow, shallow and sensational” and where much of what is reported is simply untrue.
In 2004 a pair of academics at the University of Michigan decided that it was time to test the theory of internet media consumption leading to a more narrowed and blinkered view of politics. What Paul Resnick and Kelly Garrett found was not expected.
By comparing a weighted sample of the general public against a similarly weighted sample of internet users, they tested the hypothesis that voters at the 2004 US General election would choose to learn more positive facts about the candidate they supported than they would learn about their opponent. The conclusions were robust:
“At a time when political deliberation seems extremely partisan and when people may be tempted to ignore arguments at odds with their views, internet users are not insulating themselves in information echo chambers. Instead, they are exposed to more political arguments than non-users.”
It is this final observation that seems
the most surprising – can it really be that more internet users who
can select from any news media they want prefer not to consume media
that supports their points of view? Apparently so: 28% of non
internet users expressed a preference for news sources that
explicitly shared their political point of view, only 18% of
broadband internet users said the same thing. Furthermore in his
dissertation Kelly Garrett found that whilst news consumers were
slightly less likely to read stories that appeared to contradict
their own views, once they started reading them they would read them
for longer the more they disagreed with the opinions in the articles.
This is the Howard Stern phenomena online – famously people who
hated Stern listened to him more hours per week than people who
didn’t mind him.
This may seem surprising or even impossible to anyone who has seen analysis of political blogs over the last couple of years, where maps have been drawn of the incestuousness of the US political blogging community. They show two huge clusters of dots, one red, one blue. The blue cluster is made up of hundreds of blue Democratic sites linking primarily to other Democratic sites and the red cluster of similar activity amongst Republican blogs.
One study by US researchers Lada Adamic and Natalie
Glance discovered that 91% of links on political blogs they studied
contained links to other blogs within the same political community.
Looking exclusively at the top 20 most read political blogs from each
side of the partisan aisle, they also found that only 15% of posts
were ‘cross citations’ to blogs of different political
But it is precisely in these small numbers of cross-citations that we can understand the flaw in Sunstein’s vision, and the root of the unexpected poll findings by the Michigan academics. The 15% of cross citations represent precisely the open-ness, and the dependence on opposition opinions that fuel the political blogging community, and news media online generally. It is very hard to argue into silence, and political rants are always easier to build on the rejection of an opponent’s statements or actions. Political blogs may link primarily to their own kind, but they still provide thousands of instantaneous links to opposing views – this is the crucial difference between the internet and books or newspapers. A newspaper, magazine or television channel may attempt to be neutral and contain diverse opinions, but ultimately it cannot provide the forbidden thrill of infuriating, genuine opposition, unedited and unfiltered, just a click away.
In a study of the British political landscape I co-authored with Chris Lightfoot earlier this year, one of our observations was that Guardian readers were well over 98% were to the left of center on our axes. There is clearly strong political self selection even in the relatively highly educated readers of this newspaper – even amongst an audience that knows value of balance and neutrality. Self selection of news consumption will continue online and offline, presumably so long as people have political opinions. Ultimately it is perhaps that oldest of sentiments, the car-crash mentality, the desire to see dangerous, ghastly things that secretly thrill us that will save us from the nightmare vision of Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com.