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Refuting Sunstein

By Purdy, Director of Publicity
Back in 2000 I left Oxford University Press to cut my managerial teeth at Princeton University Press.  Truth was, my head was hitting a promotional ceiling here at OUP and if I wanted to move up, I had to move out.  Princeton seemed an ideal place to go since OUP and PUP shared many academics, including Cass Sunstein.  The lead title when I arrived in Princeton would be none other than Republic.com, a polemic on how the Internet was quickly becoming a self-segregating forum that, if not regulated, could easily divide and spoil the great experiment in democracy our founding father had set in motion back in 1776. Now back at OUP (since 2006) I see the subject of ideological segregation on and offline is still a concern and just as controversial.  Here’s what Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro find to be true when examining…

Ideological Segregation in Various Media Channels

Democracy is most effective when citizens have accurate beliefs (Downs 1957; Becker 1958). To form such beliefs, individuals must encounter information that will sometimes contradict their preexisting views. Guaranteeing exposure to information from diverse viewpoints has been a central goal of media policy in the United States and around the world (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2008).

New technologies such as the Internet could either increase or decrease the likelihood that consumers are exposed to diverse news and opinion. The Internet dramatically reduces the cost of acquiring information from a wide range of sources. But increasing the number of available sources can also make it easier for consumers to self-segregate ideologically, limiting themselves to those that are likely to confirm their prior views (Mullainathan and Shleifer 2005).

The possibility that the Internet may be increasing ideological segregation has been articulated forcefully by Cass Sunstein in Republic.com (Princeton University Press, 2001), “Our communications market is rapidly moving” toward a situation where “people restrict themselves to their own points of view—liberals watching and reading only mostly liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; Neo-Nazis, Neo-Nazis.”  This limits the “unplanned, unanticipated encounters [that are] central to democracy itself” Sunstein also notes that the rise of the Internet will be especially dangerous if it crowds out other activities where consumers are more likely to encounter diverse viewpoints. He argues that both traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters, and face-to-face interactions in workplaces and local communities are likely to involve such diverse encounters.

“People who rely on [newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters] have a range of chance encounters…with diverse others, and also exposure to materials and topics that they did not seek out in advance…The diverse people who walk the streets and use the parks are likely to hear speakers’ arguments about taxes or the police; they might also learn about the nature and intensity of views held by their fellow citizens…When you go to work or visit a park…it is possible that you will have a range of unexpected encounters” (Sunstein/Republic.com, p. 30).

In an article published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Gentzkow and Shapiro assess the extent to which news consumption on the Internet is ideologically segregated, and compare online segregation with segregation of both traditional media and face-to-face interactions.  The tables below illuminate their findings.

The evidence suggests that 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. Internet news consumers with homogeneous news diets are rare. These findings may mitigate concerns expressed by Sunstein and others that the Internet will increase ideological polarization and threaten democracy.  For a more in-depth exploration of this data and their methods please refer directly to the full article.

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