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Surprising Science

Is the Internet Polarizing Politics?

Has the Internet elevated political conversation by increasing interaction between average citizens? Or is it plunging the country into an abyss of partisanship and ignorance?

This is the second post in the series Internet and the American Voter

Has the Internet elevated political conversation by increasing interaction between average citizens? Or is it plunging the country into an abyss of partisanship and ignorance?

These are troublesome questions for even the most fervent digital optimist. It doesn’t take an expert to see that what passes for informed debate online can often be petty, stupid, and even hateful. Instead of searching out new perspectives, all too many users flock to websites that support their views, pop out occasionally to post an angry comment somewhere else, and then flee back to the comfort of Red State or Paul Krugman.

Research has confirmed that the Internet exerts a polarizing force on the electorate. In his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser writes about how search engines and social networks filter out dissenting opinions and offer users only what they want to see. Google and Yahoo draw on a user’s past search preferences when responding to queries, meaning that over time a liberal and a conservative might receive ideologically opposite search results having entered identical information. (Pariser recounts how a conservative entering the letters “BP” into Google received stock tips, whereas a liberal was linked to news stories on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.)

Similar work by Cass Sunstein, the current Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, shows how the Internet creates “echo chambers” where users surround themselves only with the like-minded. This not only preserves partisanship—it exacerbates it. Sunstein found that pro-choice liberals become more pro-choice if they interact only with other liberals, and anti-abortion conservatives become more anti-abortion after surrounding themselves with other conservatives. The niche driven nature of the Internet is pushing us further and further apart.

Yet while online political discourse needs to improve, there are still many reasons to be hopeful.

Despite the “echo chamber” effect, there are places online where debate exists and users interact. Blogs, comments sections, and popular Twitter hashtags are all platforms for people from different backgrounds to come together and put forth their views. The quality of the arguments may leave something to be desired, but talking to each other about politics—even in its basest, most vitriolic form—is a big step up from sitting on the couch watching television. 

Also, the most popular political websites, such as the Drudge Report, attract users from both parties despite having a distinctly partisan slant. Just as there are conservatives who visit the New York Times online, there are liberals who read Drudge every day. It is now easier than ever before to know what the other side is thinking.

Besides, partisanship is underrated. Research has shown that voters with strong affiliations tend to be more informed than voters who are more detached. A recent paper by Patrick Murray in the journal Political Psychology, for instance, showed that in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, citizens with strong feelings about the war—either for or against—had a firmer grasp of the underlying facts that those who were disinterested. Apathy can be worse than ideology.

Partisanship also gives voters clear options from which to choose, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out in a 2010 article for The Atlantic. The current hyper-partisan environment is forcing President Obama to embrace left-wing populism a la Teddy Roosevelt. Having failed for three years with a strategy of conciliation, he is now digging in along clear ideological lines. Unlike so many elections in recent memory, the 2012 presidential race is shaping up to be one where there is an actual choice to be made: will you support the liberal position of social engineering through the tax code, or will you place your bets on the free market and globalization? Many voters will find having such clear options to be a big relief.

If the Internet does increase partisanship, it might not be such a bad thing. But there is no denying that digital political debate needs to become more productive and more intelligent. Improving it will require going far beyond asking candidates to create Facebook pages, or having CNN anchors read tweets on the air. It will even require going beyond building better blogging programs and new social networks, or figuring out a sustainable business model for serious journalism.

In order to convince people to devote their best skills and intentions to online political conversation, they need to feel that their voices are being heard. The true potential of the Internet will only be unleashed when digital citizens are incorporated into governance itself. Cities, states, and nations around the world are already beginning to experiment with “e-governance” (South Korea ranks first on the UN e-governance readiness index). Some of the experiments will be failures, and others will be successes—we will explore both later on in this series. One hopes that the US government will embrace those methods that sucessfully and efficiently return power to the people. The country will be stronger for it.

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