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Segregated, Ghettoized, Polarized and Insular? Who, Me?

Naniette Coleman's picture

A few weeks ago David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, unearthed the roots of an important discussion that began with Cass Sunstein’s 2001 essay entitled “The Daily We: Is the internet really a blessing for democracy?” Brooks’ take on Sunstein branches in two directions:  tension and composure. Tension because “the internet might lead us to a more ghettoized, polarized and insular electorate”. Composure due to recent work by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro called “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline” which presents a different take on our what Sunstein called “personalization”. 

 In Sunstein’s landmark piece, he argues that although the internet is a “great boon for democracy” we need to be cautious of the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.” Personalization by individuals “limits the exposure to topics and points of view of their own choosing. They filter in, they also filter out, with unprecedented powers of precision.”   “Unanticipated encounters, involving unfamiliar and even irritating topics and points of view, are central to democracy and freedom itself.”    He went on to say that “…from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance.   Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another. “

Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro disagree. They began their piece noting the forcefulness with which Sunstein argued the idea of “ideological segregation” but their research ended in quite a different place. They suggest, “Ideological segregation on the Internet is low in absolute terms. Higher than most offline media (excluding national newspapers), and significantly lower than segregation of face-to-face interactions in social networks.”   Are we to believe that Gentzkow and Shapiro can close the door on Cass Sunstein, then Professor at the University of Chicago and now, Senate confirmed head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs? Perhaps, and perhaps not. 

The more important question as I see it, considering the context of our blog, is how does this apply to countries outside of North America and in particular the developing world? Well, according to Ivan Sigal, the executive Director of Global Voices, a citizen media project founded at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of Digital media in Conflict –Prone Societies, the debate is just as divergent across the globe: “Digital media technology has been a key driver of media growth and diversity in both the developed and developing worlds. As with satellite TV, which fundamentally changed the media landscape in many countries, media systems based on the Internet, cellular phones and Web 2.0 tools such as social media, blogs, and wikis are having a transformational effect. The unbounded nature of digitally networked media has shaken assumptions about the nature of audience, market dynamics, the relationships between information producers and consumers and ideas about the scarcity and abundance of information. This shift to digital media and the attendant rise of networked, participatory media is the culmination of a process that has only in the past decade reached a form that we recognize, name, and consciously construct.”

So if the problem appears to have a similar unclear answer across the globe as in the U.S. context what are the implications for technology savvy governance reform organizers in the developing world? How might this affect their approach to their work? The answer is still unclear and comes with a caveat. First, the caveat, the application of either Sunstein’s supposition or those of his contemporaries Gentzkow and Shapiro are highly dependent on rates of access to the internet.  Internet penetration rates in areas outside of Europe and North America fall far below 50% with 8.7% in Africa, 20.1 % in Asia, 28.8% in the Middle East, 31.9% in Latin America and the Caribbean. The rates for Europe, Oceania/Australia and North America are 53%, 60.8% and 76.2% respectively. 


Second, according to Sigal’s Center for International Media Assistance and the National Endowment for Democracy sponsored report, what we thought was unclear is clearly unclear:  “increased access to information to the means to produce media has both positive and negative consequences in conflict situations. The question of whether the presence of digital media networks will encourage violence or lead to peaceful solutions may be viewed as a contest between the two possible outcomes. It is possible to build communications architecture that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions. However, it is equally possible for digital media to increase polarization, strengthen biases, and foment violence.”

 Photo credit: Flickr user Margolove


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