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Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs  at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public[…]

A conversation with the professor and blogger.

Matthew Nisbet: Hi, I'm Matthew Nisbet, professor at American University in the school of communication, and I'm the author of the blog "The Age of Engagement"

Question: Tell us about your blog “The Age of Engagement.”

Matthew Nisbet: Well "The Age of Engagement" is going to cover the many intersections among communication, culture and public affairs.  Over the last decade as many viewers and readers know there has been a fundamental revolution in how we communicate.  The people formally known as the audience are no longer just passive consumers of information, they’re active contributors. And almost every sector of society has been altered and transformed by the digital age and there is fundamental questions about these transformations.  In particular is the public and groups that were formerly locked out of power, consumers.  Are they empowered by these changes or are they distracted and more easily controlled?  Do we live in an age of engagement or do we live in an age of distraction? 

So from politics to science to health to the environment to culture and entertainment I’m going to take a look at the way that communication has changed these sectors of society and fundamentally the way that we live. And I’m going to take a look at those things from the perspective of a social scientist drawing on studies, drawing on data and drawing on the perspectives of my colleagues, researchers, faculty, as well as the voices and the perspectives of the students, so readers will be able to eavesdrop in and read about the many different types of conversations that are going on in the university classroom in the field of communication, in the field of political science, and other related academic fields.  

What’s an example of the public actually influencing a policy decision?

Matthew Nisbet:  Sure.  I think, you know, one of the leading examples I think was the last time we went for immigration reform in the United States under the Bush Administration.  What was interesting about the attempted immigration reform—and it’s somewhat parallel to the failed attempt at climate change legislation—is that there was majority public opinion support to broker an agreement on immigration reform in Congress.  The President was behind the agreement as well, yet despite a majority support among a relatively passive public, legislation was ultimately defeated. And the reason was you had this interaction between at the time the influence of the traditional conservative media, political talk radio and cable news and the ability for people who felt strongly opposed to immigration reform to voice their opinion through emails to members of Congress, and through a lot of online coordination that was hooked up to these different types of traditional media outlets and it was because of that opinion pressure from a minority viewpoint that legislation ultimately failed.  Fence-sitters in congress were unwilling to take the political risks that were needed to pass immigration reform at that time.

Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think when we’re thinking about how digital media is influencing our lives and influencing society I think it’s very easy to break arguments down into two different camps.  You have digital enthusiasts and optimists who argue that everything has changed, everything is different, that individuals and groups are strongly empowered now in an era of digital media.  On the other hand you have digital pessimists and internet pessimists, who talk about the distractions of the internet and in fact actually the internet makes it easier for those traditionally in power or for traditional media organizations to market to us and to influence our lives. But the reality is that the truth is somewhere in between.  Oftentimes arguments and anecdotal evidence are pulled together to argue in somewhat of a simplistic direction in either way, but the real question should be under what conditions, under what situations, for what issues.  What types of media and what types of users has the digital age led to empowerment and civic participation and greater control and greater choice and under what conditions does the Internet lead to negative consequences either for civic culture or for just personal well-being?  

What are some examples of positive change?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well you know I think as Clay Shirky, I think, argues quite effectively there is sort of unlimited creative opportunities for individuals, individuals either as individual creators of content or in collaboration.  He often points to Wikipedia.  He argues that if we just… if the world public or Americans just took a fraction of the time that we formerly spent with traditional media and we used it in terms of some type of collective creative process, as has been done with Wikipedia, we can transform culture and we can create new knowledge and in that case I think he is right.  I think that Wikipedia is a great example of collective creativity and kind of knowledge creation that transcends sort of the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge in society—whether it was formally the editors of encyclopedias, journalists or traditional academics and researchers. So I think that is one example for sure. 

On the other hand there are all sorts of other examples I think where the digital age continues to distract us and leads to different types of negative consequences.  One of the examples I like to use with my students is I often relate when I was in college at Dartmouth in the early '90s we went four years basically without ever watching television.  We had no cable access in our rooms and we had very limited access to broadcast stations.  Today’s students they don’t watch physically a TV, but they probably spend more time watching actual traditional television content by way of their laptops than any college generation in history.  That is fundamentally different now about the college experience.  The amount of time that students are spending online sure they’re watching a lot of independently produced video at different places, but most of what they watch are traditional media products simply streamed to them by way of their laptops. 

And some negative consequences?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think the negative consequences is that, you know, the traditional arguments and the criticisms about television in terms of the portrayals and entertainment portrayals either of negative stereotypes, of the types of time-displacement and distraction that happens when a viewing public might spend on average four hours of TV, four hours a day watching TV.  That time is probably better spent doing other things, either reading or outside physical activity or in terms of social interaction.  All of those negative consequences for many users of online media are amplified today.  You have a lot of data and a lot of studies about internet addiction and if anything the conversations that are happening on Twitter, at blogs, on Facebook, most of those conversations are in and around and about entertainment content that is produced by traditional media companies. 

Question: What is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned from your research?

Matthew Nisbet: Well I think one of the more surprising things and this is something that I’m going to be following and blogging about, is some of the reports that have come out of the Pew Research Center.  In these analyses they’re looking at what exactly are people talking about at blogs, in this new media ecosystem, whether it’s blogs, whether it’s independent media, whether it’s Twitter or whether it’s Facebook.  Where is that content coming from? 

And in one particular study that they looked at they looked at the media ecosystem surrounding Baltimore, Maryland and in that study what they found is roughly on average 90% of the topics that were being talked about at blogs or other independent media originated with traditional news organizations—in particular either the local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, or the national newspapers and their online version.  That tells me that while a lot of people claim that the traditional media is no longer relevant, in fact, we fundamentally rely upon the traditional media, the role of the traditional journalist as an independent professional news gatherer to inform ourselves and it is the fabric of what we discuss online and without the traditional news… that traditional news gathering process we really wouldn’t have a lot of good content and we wouldn’t have a lot of original reporting elsewhere online.  

The other really interesting thing is more recently they looked at the major blogs and they looked… an analysis of the major blogs, public affairs related blogs and they looked at what those blogs are discussing and where they’re links are going to. And in more than 90% of the topics discussed in the links were back to the traditional media. And that is also interesting because people claim now that the blogosphere now has this ability to control the news agenda.  Well that is not necessarily the case.  The blogs are still influenced and they’re still driven by what is being reported at the New York Times or on the broadcast news or on the cable news networks or political talk radio.  It’s that they take that content and they sometimes refocus it.  They redirect it.  They shape that agenda to either be in a certain ideological direction.  They might reframe the significance and the information that is being reported on, or they might take the agenda of the traditional media and focus in on just a few topics—whether it’s foreign policy, climate change or a particular political scandal.

Question: Now that there are so many specialized and niche purveyors of the news, do Americans know less about general things than they used to?

Matthew Nisbet: You know, there's a couple things to think about when you’re considering the tendency towards self-selection and self-exposure to different topics and public knowledge.  One is that going back three or four of five decades to the 1960s when we’ve asked in surveys quiz-like questions about the public’s knowledge of the most basic political facts or the basic facts about issues related to science or the environment inevitably the public scores very low in these fundamental quiz-like surveys about either public affairs literacy or science literacy.  So that hasn’t changed, and in fact what we’ve seen over the last 15 years is that public knowledge and public scores in those types of questions remain relatively stable.  It’s a question though whether that is the best measure of public knowledge or of civic culture. 

One of the things that we’re seeing is actually not necessarily a decline in basic public knowledge, but a real problem at getting public attention and elevating public concern about many different issues.  The environment is a great example or climate change is a great example and this is a problem really fundamentally of choice.  It’s the great paradox of the age of engagement that today we have more information choices about public affairs, politics, science, health, medicine, the environment than any time in history. Yet if you as a consumer of information or as a member of the audience or an individual lack a preference or a motivation to engage with that news and information on a regular basis you can completely avoid that information.  It’s not top-of-mind and it becomes that much more difficult then to really raise the type of political will necessary to get things done in this country on issues like climate change, immigration, social security, healthcare, you name the public problem. 

Question: Rumors seem to take hold much quicker in the Internet age, spreading quickly and infecting opinion. Is this a problem?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think what is happening and it’s very easy in the online world is this process of self-selection, self-selection into certain types of content and then self-acceptance of certain types of claims. And some of the emerging research and political science that I’ll be talking about at the blog and asking some of these researchers to post guest posts or interviewing them in blog posts that I’ve put together what they find is that it’s very difficult to correct a rumor among the most ideologically intense segments of an audience. So people on the right and people strongly committed on the left, once they hear a rumor or a piece of misinformation that confirms their worldview—even if that rumor or that piece of information is corrected, they still believe the original claim, and no amount of more information is going to change that belief. And that is fundamentally troubling.  That is one of the negative consequences of the online world.  Sure, you have a lot of discussion, you have a lot of debate, but the human tendency is for people to self-select themselves into ideological echo chambers or content areas that reflect what they already believe.

Question: Is this situation any different than that of talk radio?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well, it’s you know political talk radio can be thought of as sort of the first generation of new media.  Political talk radio even before cable news was maybe the first mass media commentary or news outlet to challenge the dominance of the traditional newspapers and the broadcast news. And certainly the growth of Rush Limbaugh creating this very popular radio format of conservative talk radio that did lead to a lot of ideological self-selection into that audience group. 

Now, with digital media and the online world that problem of choice is actually greatly magnified.  It’s just not a problem of choice for people self-selecting themselves into like-minded ideological content, but it’s also a problem of choice when it comes to people’s preferences for news versus diversionary information or entertainment.  Even among the highly educated, if they lack a preference now today for news and information—or even news in a particular area whether it’s science or foreign affairs—they can very easily completely avoid all information or news about that topic and that is very different from the old traditional media model.  If you sat down to watch TV at 6:00 in 1985 you had three information choices available to you and those were all national or local news and they had a common set of issues that they were focusing on and topics and you didn’t have that selectivity to say, “Okay, I don’t care about foreign policy.”  “I don’t care about science.”  “I’m not going to pay attention to it.”  You were fed a steady diet, a shared agenda of information by the traditional news media.

Question: Has the massive oil spill in the Gulf changed public opinion about the environment?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think, you know, there is a couple very important dimensions to consider here.  We haven’t seen a lot of change in public opinion about climate change, in part because of the downturn in the economy we’re at an ebb in terms of public enthusiasm for action on climate change and concern over climate change and that is somewhat part of a natural cycle that you see on social problems generally and on environmental problems.  Sort of the height of concern about climate change was around 2007, with the release of "An Inconvenient Truth"and a record amount of news attention to that issue. But it’s almost as if the public became habituated or used or desensitized to a lot of stories and the narratives about environmental impacts and environmental disaster that were at the… really strongly featured around that time. And with the performance of the economy we started moving into a downward cycle of concern.

So the oil spill hasn’t really changed or shifted that period that we’re in right now in terms of almost issue fatigue with climate change, but what we have seen is a major change in public opinion when it comes to asking the public about weighing the importance of either economic growth or energy exploration with the need for environmental protection or conservation.  Between the month before, according to Gallup polls, the month before the oil spill and then roughly a month and a half afterwards we saw that a majority of the public literally reversed course—that before the oil spill a majority of the public favored energy exploration and economic development over environmental protection.  Six weeks later that public preference had flipped. And I think that is something that has been overlooked in the discussion.  There has been a lot of blame on the administration and on environmental groups for not taking advantage of this major focusing event, but in fact, I think there has been a lot of the news… the news attention has done the work for environmental groups and has opened an opportunity at least a latent sentiment to think about environmental protection over economic growth even in this period of economic recession.

Question: How has the Internet contributed to the growth of the atheist movement?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I have somewhat of a personal perspective on this.  Right after finishing college in the early 1990s I worked at a place in my hometown of Buffalo, New York called the Center for Inquiry.  They published two magazines that readers might be familiar with and that is Free Inquiry and Skeptical Enquirer magazines and for a long time the Center for Inquiry founded by philosopher Paul Kurtz who was a philosopher of… a leading thinker in the area of secular humanism about secular values they used a traditional model of… a traditional media model to disseminate information and to grow the secular humanist movement through traditional magazines, through a book publishing company that Paul Kurtz founded and through a lot of appearances in traditional media. 

I left the organization in the late 1990s.  I went to graduate school and one of the things that I observed over the last decade was that this traditional secular humanist movement, the Center for Inquiry, was slow to adapt to the online world.  They were slow to have a state-of-the-art Web site.  They were slow to launch blogs.  They were slow to have access to their magazine content online.  

Around that time authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, they were propelled into the public spotlight by traditional publishers finally deciding to publish hard-hitting critiques of religion, of prominent… in this case a prominent journalist and a prominent scientist and those books were taken up by the emerging atheist blogosphere and their impact was amplified and around several different leading bloggers—in particular PZ Myers—whole communities of discussion of likeminded atheists and agnostics and critics of religion grew up.

And what they did is they challenged, they started to challenge the authority of sort of the traditional atheist movement, the traditional secular humanist movement that was headquartered in longstanding organizations like the Center for Inquiry, and was really most of the communication took place in magazines and maybe in books from smaller publishers. And they started to set the agenda of what it meant to be an atheist, so that was very good for attracting more attention to atheism, to raising questions about the role of religion in society, but it also had a lot of negative consequences.  These negative consequences to the atheist blogosphere are not unique.  They are some of the same negative consequences that are sort of endemic to the political blogosphere and that is a lot of self-selection.  That is a lot of echo chambers of kind of ever-escalating critiques—in some cases outright denigrating and stereotyping the religious public. And on issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools or how the public thinks about science the atheist movement has become sometimes synonymous with the position of the scientific community and I think in that process they might be doing more harm than good.  They might actually… might be engaging in a lot of self-inflicted wounds, leaving the impression that you can’t value science, that you can’t have a scientific world and also be a person of faith and certainly that is a point that is open for debate.

Do atheists make better use of the Internet than the religious?  

Matthew Nisbet: I’m not sure.  In part the new atheist movement is almost a social movement within the larger scientific community.  Many of the people that are attracted to new atheist movement identify with science or are scientists themselves and certainly scientists have been online for a long time.  In fact, many of the most prominent bloggers, new atheist bloggers, they came about… they came up and they kind of honed their skills in internet discussion groups, mostly around the debates about evolution. So they have that natural consistency and that natural… the pre-existing experience with using online organizing and reaching people online that maybe some of the religious organizations do not.  The advantage that the religious organizations have though is they have real world communities.  They have networks of interaction through mega-churches, through traditional churches and one of the things that I’ll be blogging and writing about and taking a look at, at the Age of Engagement is how are traditional religious organizations and movements now using the online world to foster the communities, to build their communities or is the online world actually taking away some of their followers and distracting people who otherwise might commit to that particular religious faith or even attend church on a weekly basis.  

How can we better engage the public in some sort of collective decision-making process for the big issues facing our world?

Matthew Nisbet: This is really one of the big questions facing us.  How do we communicate effectively about complex problems and how do we engage the public in some type of collective decision-making about what should be done?  And I think the answer lies in investments in three areas. 

One is we have a problem with the media system.  The for-profit model of traditional news gathering is really in peril and we need to think creatively and we need to move forward assertively with innovations either in not-for-profit models for the news that are foundation, government, university supported. Or innovative models of information and idea dissemination like Big Think.  That is the brainchild of innovative entrepreneurs and supported by a combination of advertising and other funding sources. So we have to rethink what exactly is the future of the news media. 

The second thing we need to think about is, how are we educating people at the high school level, the junior college and the university level to be engaged citizens?  In particular how are we educating them about how to seek out information, how to critically assess and evaluate news, commentary and different types of information sources and how to use the many different types of digital media and tools to make personal choices and collective choices and I think we need to think about the curriculum from the high school forward in terms of building in of cross courses a curriculum of media literacy and media skills for students. 

And the third thing that we have to think about is communication is not enough.  Better media, better users of media is not going to solve this problem.  I think we need to kind of raise a conversation about are the institutions by which we make decisions at the federal… from a federal and national level to the state to the regional and the local.  Have these institutions failed in fundamental ways and what are creative, innovative ways to reinvent them to increase public input and to be able to actually reach some type of consensus about what should be done about these complex problems?  

Question: How would you reinvent government?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think one particular area that I’ll be taking a close look at in the Age of Engagement is many of these problems that we face in society and some of the biggest questions involve highly technical issues related to the environment, related to climate change; or fundamental questions involving ethics about some of the fastest growing areas of research, neuroscience, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, human genomics.

And one of the questions is these decisions have often been outside of the wider public eye.  They’ve been decided by regulators in government, people at federal agencies, scientists in industry. But these issues fundamentally affect and are too important to leave to scientists, members of government and industry to decide.  We have to think about how can we actively involve the public in this type of decision making and there is a number of emerging models that have really been developed in countries in Europe and Canada.  They’re called deliberative forums, consensus conferences, where they’re often sponsored by university, a government agency, sometimes underwritten by a foundation where you bring people together for a weekend or even sometimes as long as a week and you pose to them questions about an area of research, a topic such as nanotechnology.  They deliberate in small groups.  They ask questions of experts and at the end they then voice their opinion.  They reach some type of judgment and consensus about what should be done and we’re starting to experiment with those types of models here in the United States on issues like nanotechnology.  The next question is, is it merely enough that citizens have voiced their opinion, but should their opinion have real weight.  If the public is well informed about an issue and has deliberated and decided should that actually bear strongly on what type of actual government decision is made or even what kind of direction the science institutions or scientists might go in the research and I think that is a conversation we have yet to have.

Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman