Cyberdemocracy's costs may be overstated

June 5, 2001

Thanks to Ed Fink for pointing out the New York Times article on Cass Sunstein's recent book "" and various Internet discussions of it. The book, which I now look forward to reading, attributes to the Internet a phenomenon (or perhaps more properly a genre of discussion) it calls "group polarization" in which "like-minded people in an isolated group reinforce one another's views, which then harden into more extreme positions" (quote from New York Times article). For what its worth, the phenomonon is real, and the Times article does an excellent job of detailing a discussion about the book which demonstrates its reality (to the frustration of group members who are complaining about book even as they act out its premise). For what its worth, the phenomonon is not new in the literature. I describe a variant of it in my 1990 doctoral dissertation (using the term "polar debate").

Unfortunately, the phenomonon is neither new nor particularly unique to Internet discussions. It is clearly evident in "perspective" talk radio shows (most often, in my observation, conservative talk radio shows), in which most callers act, in concert with the host, to "add fuel to the fire" of whatever topic is at issue, and harden the perspective of each other and other listeners. Consider also recent generations of political fund raising letters and telemarketing phone calls, which are often filled with half-truths or outright lies about the opposing party and candidate. These letters and calls flow with the greatest frequency to the "true believers", those who have given money in support of a given perspective before, and generally act to inflame and otherwise harden the known perspective of the target donor. Indeed, I would note that this kind of targeted Rhetoric has been the historical norm in political campaigns in this country going back to the end of Washington's presidency. It isn't particularly unique to our country either. Check out a session of the British House of Commons sometime. Finally, consider both the well known small group discussion phenomonon of "shift to risk" (in which group's frequently adopt extreme rather than compromise perspectives) and the classic book on bad decision making in the Kennedy administration: "Victims of Groupthink". Group polarization is nothing new either in the reality of media or in the literature of our field. The only thing that is new is the emergence of yet another place where groups can polarize, this time with the somewhat unique characteristic of supporting near-real-time discussions between highly distributed (geographically) groups.

There is, of course, always a risk that the possibilities of emerging media will help to create a culture of "true belief". New media, including radio and motion pictures, almost certainly were used to help fuel the success of Hitler and the Nazi's in 1930's Germany. But many other classic media were used as well, including the educational system, youth organizations, publications, and large crowds. There are other, non-media factors associated with Germany's national "shift to risk"", including oppressive war reparations from World War 1, the growth of communism, and a severe depression. So while I look forward to reading the book, I will do so with the opening assumption that computer-mediated discussions among small groups of people are unlikely to be any more dangerous to democracy than those associated with any other form of interpersonal or political discourse.

Davis Foulger

As Published in CRTNET NEWS # 6059

Both volumes have been distributed via the CRTNET list. It can be expected that both volumes will be made available as a part of the June, 2001 CRTNET archive. Presented here at the request of several readers of the original distribution.