Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy? – Cass Sunstein

In this article Cass Sunstein, who was Head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under the Obama Administration, and is now a Harvard professor, writes about the dangers of the internet when it comes to democracy. He starts by contending that the internet is both a booster of democracy and a hinderer. While it can connect people to ideas and other people and groups faster than ever, it can also limit exposure in a dangerous way.

He writes, “as a result of the Internet and other technological developments, many people are increasingly engaged in a process of “personalization” that limits their exposure to topics and points of view of their own choosing.” Through this filtering and personalization we are able to reduce the “unwanted noise” or information we are not interested in, which in democracy is a mixed blessing. People need to be exposed to different viewpoints for democracy to work and it is central to freedom itself. Without this, people can’t understand each other, and will have a very different time understanding each other, which I think is what we have now fully come to see, almost 20 years later.

He talks about a “utopian future” where people choose what they want to see completely. If they want to watch only sports they can, if they want to restrict themselves to certain political groups they can, if they want to only follow news from  the New York Times they can. This future he talks about seems to be the exact future we live in now which to me is very scary.

While we still have the ability to read the newspapers and scan articles we wouldn’t have sought out,  it is just as easy to customize our news and block those same articles out. He talks about larger news intermediaries and how they “expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public”,  for example fox news of MSNBC.

He writes “group polarization is the idea that group deliberation with like-minded people and insulation from alternate views breeds increasing extremism.” This makes sense in the way that is we are only see one viewpoint, it is continually grows stronger and more affirmed in our minds to the point where we can’t even begin to see the other sides of viewpoints. While technology can act to expand our horizons, it is often times used to limit ourselves, and produce narrowness, not breadth.


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