Republic.com explores the implications of new and emerging communications technologies — chiefly the Internet — for democracy and free speech. Cass Sunstein focuses on two issues in particular: the increase of highly specialized forums for information, such as web sites and customized news digests, that allow people to see only what already interests them and that limit their exposure to concerns and perspectives that differ from their own; and the decline of influence of "general interest intermediaries," such as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters, that provide citizens with shared cultural experiences and offer them common points of reference.
Sunstein's central argument is that people need to be exposed to information they would not have chosen in advance. "Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself," he asserts. By exposing people to opinions and positions on issues that they might not seek out on their own, these encounters serve as safeguards against fragmentation and extremism.
This is illustrated by the phenomenon of "group polarization" where like-minded people in an isolated group tend to reinforce one another's views, which then harden into more extreme positions. Citing John Stuart Mill, Sunstein notes that "It is hardly possible to overstate the value of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.... This is [the] primary source of progress."
In Sunstein's view, there is a case to be made for "enclave deliberation" — the sort of dialogue that takes place within insulated groups. "It is obvious," he writes, "that enclave deliberation can be extremely important in a heterogeneous society, not least because members of some groups tend to be especially quiet when participating in broader deliberative bodies. In this light, a special advantage of enclave deliberation is that it promotes the development of positions that would otherwise be invisible, silenced, or squelched in general debate." Enclave deliberation therefore serves an essential function in a democracy by nurturing new and lesser-heard ideas. But it also has its dangers: it can become an incubator of cults, hate groups, and other forces of extremism and dysfunction.
Sunstein goes on to stress that a healthy democracy requires that its citizens share a range of common experiences, including and especially those made possible by the news media which go a long way toward forging a common culture. The cover story in a magazine or the lead story on the evening news can provide a common reference point for millions of people. In a nation of unlimited communications options, some events will inevitably command widespread attention. But the proliferation and fragmentation of information sources will reduce the level of shared experiences, simply as a matter of numbers.
"To the extent that choices and filtering proliferate," Sunstein writes, "it is inevitable that diverse individuals, and diverse groups, will have fewer such reference points. Events that are highly salient to some people will barely register on others' viewscreens. And it is possible that some views and perspectives that seem obvious for many people will, for others, be barely intelligible."
Sunstein acknowledges that new Internet technologies offer enormous opportunities, but adds that it would be worthwhile to consider public initiatives where they fall short. He outlines six specific reform possibilities to improve exposure to diverse points of view on the Internet: 1) creation of "deliberative domains" where diverse exchange of views can occur online; 2) disclosure of relevant conduct by Web producers; 3) voluntary self-regulation by Web producers; 4) publicly subsidized programming and Web sites; 5) government-imposed rules that would require the most popular Web sites to provide links to sites with diverse views; and 6) government-imposed rules that would require highly partisan Web sites to provide links to sites with opposing views.
Copyright 2001 by Scott London. All rights reserved.