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Riders on the Storm
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.