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UCD-STAFFORDBEER  April 2010

UCD-STAFFORDBEER April 2010

Subject:

Political polarization and the internet

From:

BARRY A CLEMSON <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Forum dedicated to the work of Stafford Beer <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 20 Apr 2010 15:24:02 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (125 lines)

This piece shatters some of my preconceived notions!

Barry

=============

Op-Ed Columnist
Riders on the Storm


By DAVID BROOKS
Published: April 19, 2010

In 2001, Cass R. Sunstein wrote an essay in The Boston Review called  
“The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?”  
Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago who now serves in  
the Obama administration, raised the possibility that the Internet may  
be harming the public square.

In the mid-20th century, Americans got most of their news through a  
few big networks and mass-market magazines. People were forced to  
encounter political viewpoints different from their own. Moreover, the  
mass media gave Americans shared experiences. If you met strangers in  
a barbershop, you could be pretty sure you would have something in  
common to talk about from watching the same TV shows.

Sunstein wondered whether the Internet was undermining all this. The  
new media, he noted, allow you to personalize your newspapers so you  
only see the stories that already interest you. You can visit only  
those Web sites that confirm your prejudices. Instead of a public  
square, we could end up with a collection of information cocoons.

Sunstein was particularly concerned about this because he has done  
very important work over the years about our cognitive biases. We like  
hearing evidence that confirms our suppositions. We filter out  
evidence that challenges them.

Moreover, we have a natural tilt toward polarized views. People are  
prone to gather in like-minded groups. Once in them, they drive each  
other to even greater extremes. In his recent book “Going to  
Extremes,” Sunstein shows that liberal judges get more liberal when  
they are on panels with other liberals. Conservative judges get more  
conservative.

Sunstein’s fear was that the Internet might lead to a more ghettoized,  
polarized and insular electorate. Those fears were supported by some  
other studies, and they certainly matched my own experience. Every day  
I seem to meet people who live in partisan ghettoes, ignorant about  
the other side.

Yet new research complicates this picture. Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse  
M. Shapiro, both of the University of Chicago Booth School of  
Business, have measured ideological segregation on the Internet. They  
took methodologies that have been used to identify racial segregation,  
and they tracked how people of different political views move around  
the Web.

The methodology is complicated, but can be summarized through a  
geographic metaphor. Think of the Fox News site as Casper, Wyo. If you  
visited and shook hands with the people reading the site, you’d be  
very likely to be shaking hands with a conservative. The New York  
Times site, they suggest, is like Manhattan. If you shook hands with  
other readers, you’d probably be shaking hands with liberals.

The study measures the people who visit sites, not the content inside.

According to the study, a person who visited only Fox News would have  
more overlap with conservatives than 99 percent of Internet news  
users. A person who only went to The Times’s site would have more  
liberal overlap than 95 percent of users.

But the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within  
their communities. Most people spend a lot of time on a few giant  
sites with politically integrated audiences, like Yahoo News.

But even when they leave these integrated sites, they often go into  
areas where most visitors are not like themselves. People who spend a  
lot of time on Glenn Beck’s Web site are more likely to visit The New  
York Times’s Web site than average Internet users. People who spend  
time on the most liberal sites are more likely to go to foxnews.com  
than average Internet users. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis  
travel far and wide across the Web.

It is so easy to click over to another site that people travel widely.  
And they’re not even following links most of the time; they have their  
own traveling patterns.

Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more  
ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face  
association — like meeting people at work, at church or through  
community groups. You’re more likely to overlap with political  
opponents online than in your own neighborhood.

This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological  
Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests.  
They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information,  
combat and arousal. This does not mean they are not polarized. Looking  
at a site says nothing about how you process it or the character of  
attention you bring to it. It could be people spend a lot of time at  
their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate.  
But it probably does mean they are not insecure and they are not  
sheltered.

If this study is correct, the Internet will not produce a cocooned  
public square, but a free-wheeling multilayered Mad Max public square.  
The study also suggests that if there is increased polarization (and  
there is), it’s probably not the Internet that’s causing it.
= = = = = = = = = = = =
BARRY  CLEMSON
www.barryclemson.net
757-692-6673
Cybernetica Press Inc
Denmark Rising is now available at my web site
[log in to unmask]

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