Saturday, June 9, 2018

What should be done about echo chambers in the social media?

Why bother reading a book by Cass Sunstein which suggests that echo chambers in the social media are becoming a problem for democracy and that something should be done about them? That was a question I had to ask myself before deciding to read Sunstein’s recently published book, Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

The people who are likely to be most enthusiastic about reading this book will be concerned about echo chambers already, and be fans of Sunstein. I was already concerned about echo chambers before reading the book, but reading other books by Sunstein did not induce me to join his fan club. From his interview about this book with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk, I thought some of the views presented would be challenging. 
I was in no hurry to read the book.

That illustrates a problem with echo chambers. Many of us have a tendency to avoid being challenged even when there is potential to learn something useful from people who have opposing viewpoints. I only read the book because I have recently been thinking and writing about the potential benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints.

The book was worth reading to help me clarify my own views. In summary, Sunstein suggests: 
“to the extent that people are using social media to create echo chambers, and wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they are creating serious dangers. And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such”.

The serious dangers that Sunstein is referring to include group polarisation, the spreading of falsehoods within echo chambers, a high degree of social fragmentation and greater difficulty of mutual understanding.

The author doesn’t claim that this is currently the general pattern, or that group polarisation and cybercascades are always bad. He recognizes that it is sometimes good for a perception or point of view to spread rapidly among a group of like-minded people. His claim is that group polarisation can, nevertheless, be a significant risk even if only a small number of people choose to listen and speak solely with those who are like-minded. Enclave deliberation can cause members of groups to move to positions that lack merit e.g. terrorist agendas. “In the extreme case, enclave deliberation may even put social stability at risk”.

Turning to the second part of the quoted passage, readers may wonder how Sunstein can argue that a system of free expression can be consistent with regulation of consumer choices.  His argument seems to rest on two propositions:

·         First, free speech is not an absolute – despite the free speech guarantee in the U.S. constitution, government is permitted to restrict speech in various ways e.g. attempted bribery, criminal conspiracy, child pornography.

·         Second, the free speech principle should be read in light of the commitment to democratic deliberation rather than consumer sovereignty. From the perspective of supporting democratic deliberation, regulation of television, radio and the Internet may be permissible to promote democratic goals.

I’m uneasy about the second proposition. The U.S. Supreme Court would presumably disallow legislation which purported to support democratic deliberation in a manner that conflicted seriously with fundamental freedoms. In parliamentary systems that have no constitutional guarantees of liberty, however, legislative action to support democratic deliberation could be far-reaching and ideological. For example,  it could mandate coverage in school curriculums of the foundations of democracy in the history of western civilization, or alternatively, its foundation in the history of protest movements and revolutions.

The purpose for which Sunstein seeks government action to support democratic deliberation is to ensure a measure of social integration by promoting exposure of people to issues and views that might otherwise escape their attention. He writes:

“A society with general-interest intermediaries, like a society with a robust set of public forums, promotes a shared set of experiences at the same time that it exposes countless people to information and opinions that they would not have sought out in advance. These features of a well-functioning system of free expression might well be compromised when individuals personalize their own communications packages—and certainly if they personalize in a way that narrows their horizons”.

I support those sentiments  but I am wary of government intervention in support of them.  Seemingly benign government action in support of public forums can be counterproductive. I have in mind particularly the Q&A program of Australia’s public broadcaster. This is a taxpayer funded public forum which exposes people to opinions they would not seek to be exposed to. On issues that have become politicized, the people watching the show might be entertained by the antics of those presenting opposing views but are unlikely to have gained a better understanding of the issues.  

There are already many public forums on the Internet. If people choose to join forums that don’t welcome dissent from prevailing views that is akin to people avoiding public places where public demonstrations are held. That choice should be respected. 
If a growing proportion of the population chooses to spend an increasing proportion of their time echo chambers rather than open forums, that is a cultural problem with potential implications for democratic deliberation.  it should be dealt with as a cultural problem rather than a public policy problem.

Those of us who are concerned that echo chambers are becoming more prevalent should remember that sectarian echo chambers have warped democratic deliberation in the past. How were those religion-based echo chambers dismantled? I can’t claim to know much about the history, but I doubt that government intervention played a significant role. It was a cultural shift. It was presumably led by influential people within some factional forums who took a stand in favour of allowing dissenting voices to be heard. Influential people outside the echo chambers must also been active in encouraging individuals to think for themselves rather than to parrot the views of church leaders and sectarian politicians. In many organisations, tolerance of dissent came to be viewed as the norm and thinking for one’s self came to be viewed as a virtue.

Could that happen again?


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