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Scott Zuke

(Jan, 2011)  Forget "Republican" or "Democrat," the better question today is whether you’re a Drudge or a Huffington Post; A Media Matters or a News Busters; A Red State or a Daily Kos. Do you read Andrew Sullivan and Thomas Friedman, or do you prefer Andrew Breitbart and Michelle Malkin? The first time I heard of most of these bloggers and opinion outlets was in the lead up to the 2004 presidential election. Six years later, they’re still active and heavily trafficked, and the ability to leave anonymous comments on these and most news sites has become mainstream. To some, this represents an age of broader political engagement, free exchange of information, and vigorous debate--in short, a time of a robust democratic public sphere made healthy by technological innovations in mass communication. The truth of the matter, however, is difficult to evaluate in terms of promoting vital, deep democracy.

The promise of blogs and comment fields when they first emerged was that they could break down the levels of removal that naturally separate people scattered over vast distances. Historically, two of the great limitations to the scope of direct democracy were physical separation and time constraints. Representation was the solution to the problem of not having enough time for everyone in a large community to speak, and for there being no central meeting place convenient enough to accommodate everyone simultaneously. The Internet quickly eliminated the physical distance constraint, and because the material available on it "sticks around" indefinitely, people are able to access, sort, and interact with it at their leisure.

With these limitations eroded through omnipresent and (relatively) egalitarian Internet access, the potential for broader democratic participation and deliberation should have grown rapidly. Never before could someone write an op-ed piece in New York and within minutes receive feedback from readers in Chicago, IL, Kingsville, TX, and Stockholm, Sweden. Nor could all of those commenters see each others posts and choose to reply either right away or some hours later after taking time to think through their arguments and craft a rebuttal. If free and open discourse has never been so easy, we might have expected discussion to be more lively and fruitful than ever before. However, something seems to have gone awry.

Look at the comments on any letter to the editor on the Frederick News-Post’s website, for example. Following the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, "You will never find a more wretched hive of snarkiness and irritability." Except for all the others. The News-Post is no exception; most political blogs’ comments come from a core group of dedicated responders who engage frequently in ad hominem and other fallacies against each other, and are completely dedicated to a dogmatic political attitude. They either visit and contribute to the site because they unquestioningly support its political stance and like to see their views validated publicly, or because they wholly disagree with and despise the site and monitor it just to confirm their worst expectations of it. If there is anyone left who posts frequently in comment sections for the sake of engaging in honest inquiry or to provide constructive information or feedback, they are surely in a small minority. Such forums have overwhelmingly come to demonstrate the worst pitfalls of direct democracy rather than show its great potential for building and fortifying a sense of community.

Odd as it may sound, one of the web’s more attractive innovations from the standpoint of democracy promotion may be customer reviews on sites such as Customers have the opportunity to share their honest evaluations of products and their positive and negative qualities--in a sense, making an argument for whether someone else should buy them. Readers then have the chance to aggregate a wide swath of information and opinions and consider their purchases from various perspectives, and they may even vote to promote particularly helpful reviews to the top of the page. The reviewers are reasonably expected to be trustworthy because they have direct experience with the product, and differences of opinion are typically handled as differences of experience. A great product for one person may only be mediocre for another, but when they write true to their expectations and experiences, differences in opinion are helpful and constructive rather than antagonistic. What if public policy were discussed in the same manner?

Somewhere in between customer reviews and blogs is the middle ground of discussing politics through Facebook and social networking. As with political blogs, Facebook users can post comments and essentially conduct an asynchronous conversation in which certain others can participate or merely observe. Since there is no anonymity in these discussions, individuals tend to talk more about their personal experiences and views, and show a greater regard for the views of their fellow discussants, whose opinions or dispositions are more likely to be already known to them.

The relative advantage of Facebook explains the failure of political blogs to stimulate vital democratic discourse. While they did erode the levels of removal separating people scattered about the globe and create a common, open forum, they may very well have gone too far. For a democratic community to function well, there must actually be a sense of community, and such a sense does not exist in a setting of anonymity. Relationships between people do matter, if for no other reason than that having some relationship with a person generates the kind of general respect for him or her that is a precondition for civil dialogue.

Recent studies in deliberative democratic practices have found that when people are put together to solve a shared political problem (e.g. the budget deficit) as a group, working face-to-face, they tend to temper their partisan views and willingly make compromises in the interest of constructive decision making. It should come as no surprise that the same result fails to emerge from Internet comment sections, where people do not, nor likely ever will know each other, and therefore have no cause to treat others’ views with respect.

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