Review of #Republic: Divided Democracy in the age of Social Media by Cass R. Sunstein.
Cass Sunstein is a legal scholar who often writes in the fields of law and the environment and behavioral economics. I think he is one of the most innovative thinkers in America. He often writes about threats to American Democracy and he feels that many kinds of social media are just that: serious existential threats to democracy in America.
Sunstein says that social media like Facebook or Twitter are what many call filter bubbles or echo chambers. In other words they often contain only information that the media owner likes and approves of. He says there are filters built into all social media that reject all views the user dislikes or doesn’t approve of. And, of course, media that contains only views that the user agrees with, tend to be very pleasing. And viewers return again and again to media that they find pleasing. And this, of course, leads to greater success by the media purveyors. Which is mostly why they create this kind of media in the first place
How does this filtering happen? Social media viewers are constantly liking and viewing and sharing and commenting on everything that pops up on their media. And it doesn’t take long for the built-in filters to create a unique profile for every viewer. This is what they are designed to do. And this makes it easy for your media to reject what you don’t like and get more of what you do like. And also these profiles sometimes get sold to advertisers or other information managers for big bucks. And big bucks for advertising to lots of members and big bucks for lots of user profiles that can be sold and used in all kinds of ways are what social media is all about.
One result of all of this is that media viewers end up in bubbles and echo chambers that endlessly repeat what they love and respect. They see no new ideas, especially ideas that may upset or worry or scare or stimulate them. Not a healthy situation for democratic societies that can only work when citizens constantly see a wide variety of topics and ideas. Filter bubbles can thus be a short road to dystopian societies.
Sunstein says that two of the enduring accounts of dystopian societies are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The first novel is a depiction of a strongman society that uses force and direct power to achieve obedience. In the second book, it is pleasure that is used to control citizens. The brand new option, social media bubbles, locked citizens into simple, often polarized beliefs which can easily be used to manipulate them.
Early in the book Sunstein introduces the idea of The Daily Me. People no longer read their local Daily Tribune or whatever it may be called, they now read Their Daily Me. Each of us in American can now design a daily communications package composed of all the stuff we are most interested in. Basically we all personalize our own private, comfortable little world to live in.
It has long been known that all humans show “homophily” a strong tendency to connect with and bond with people who are like themselves. This tendency is damped down in democratic societies in several ways. A metaphor for this is the public forum. In the past, the public forum was usually pubic streets and parks. Here people were exposed to all kinds of accidental encounters and new information. Often people were surprised to find they actually enjoyed and approved of all kinds of stuff they thought they disliked or hated.
Another form of the public forum are General Interest Intermediaries. These are general interest magazines like Newsweek, Time, The Economist, the New York Times, the New York Review of books or even the various forms of the nightly news on TV. Again the reader or view is bought into contact with all kinds of information, some he may agree with and some not. The important thing is that all of the encounters should be unchosen by him and they should contain a wide variety of information. This is the way people are exposed to new ideas. It is something that never happens in filter bubbles.
The opposite of public forums is the Gated Community, not necessary a literal gated community but usually a metaphorical one. Those who live in gated communication communities almost always find it impossible to solve even simple national and world problems. They just don’t have enough information and the information they do have is often erroneous. And they are easy prey for those who pretend to share their bubble worlds. As a result, these people are easily manipulated.
This is just a tiny toe into the sea of information about filter bubbles and media filters contained in this book. I found this book to be one of the most important I’ve read in the last several years.
#Republic:Divided Democracy in the age of Social Media
Cass R. Sunstein
Princeton University Press