"When we are sealed off in 'information cocoons,' to use Sunstein’s phrase, our deliberative processes are stunted"by Alex Dean / April 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
#republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass Sunstein (Princeton, £24.95)
The internet is a threat to democracy. That’s the central argument in #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, a new book by Harvard law professor and former Obama staffer Cass Sunstein.
According to Sunstein, new technology has resulted in people spending an unprecedented amount of time in echo chambers. Digital tools enable us to filter content with lightning speed, and thus avoid seeing it. Tech-users are therefore under-exposed to beliefs—notably political ones—which differ from their own.
Twitter comes in for a hard time here: its hashtags enable us to select the thoughts that we would like to engage with, and to discard the rest. (This explains the format of the book’s title.) Facebook takes a battering too. It is not just social media that Sunstein takes aim at, though; websites like Amazon, which use algorithms to guide our attention towards certain titles, also come in for criticism.
The wider implications of his critique are severe. When we are sealed off in “information cocoons,” to use Sunstein’s phrase, our deliberative processes are stunted. This is a problem, he says, because democracy is not just about casting a vote; it is about the everyday reflection that informs our voting decisions. He suggests a few solutions, such as websites actively presenting users with a range of opinions.
The book isn’t perfect; for starters, it is too repetitive. But with political polarisation on the rise, particularly in the United States, it couldn’t come at a more important time.